Joel, you see with one eye closed. Your world is flat. Your thinking has no depth. Next time, open both eyes so maybe you see the people, too.”
Ouch! My sensei’s assessment of my first kaizen event was not quite as positive as I had hoped. Outwardly, I thanked him for his feedback and vowed that I would learn from the experience. My internal dialogue, however, contained of a litany of four-letter words, insults, and the vow that my first kaizen event would also be my last kaizen event. Thankfully, my cooler head prevailed, and I thought it a good idea to seek out my sensei and better understand his teaching before I swore off this “stupid lean stuff” forever.
I learned two very important lessons from that follow-up conversation. The first being that lean senseis can be quite brutal in their criticism; if I was going to learn anything from the man, I needed to swallow my ego. A little humility can go a long way.
The second lesson came in the form of a quote that still echoes deep in the catacombs of my mind to this day. He said, “Joel, you need to understand that . . .
I nodded and told him I that I understood. Of course, I didn’t really understand, but I thought I did at the time. He said nothing and simply smiled back at me. It was a smile that knew better, seeming to send the message, “we’ll see, kid.”
Now years later, I still find myself deepening my understanding and appreciation for the social and technical dynamics of lean systems. In fact, it’s likely that I will never fully unearth all that there is to learn on these topics. In hindsight, however, there is one thing of which I am certain: my sensei was right.
Lean = Social x Technical
Lean is both a social system and a technical system . . . in that order. In and of itself, this point is deeply impactful. However, there is an equally important lesson that we may learn from the contrapositive of this statement. Without developing BOTH the social AND the technical dimensions of an organization, we should not call our efforts an attempt to become “lean”.
Remove the identifying characteristics of something, and it generally ceases to be that thing. For example, I may purchase milk at the grocery store in the form of a cardboard carton containing one half-gallon of an opaque, white liquid. If I were to pour the entire contents down the drain, I would have nothing but an empty cardboard carton left, and it would be nonsensical of me to continue to refer to the object as “milk”. Even more, I certainly would no longer expect to reap the benefit of stronger bones. The same principles hold true for our efforts to become lean. Becoming lean is the product of social (people) transformation AND technical (process) transformation. Without both dimensions, there is no “lean” and there certainly can be no expectation of lean results. Our efforts translate into something else, something less, entirely.
Why dwell on this point? Consider that, as of a 2008 Industry Week report, 98% of organizations who attempt a lean transformation fail to fully meet their objectives and 74% fail to generate even significant results. Let us not argue over the validity or the accuracy of this data; suffice it is to say that the success rate for so-called-lean transformations is less than stellar. This fact leads many to heap criticism, some quite severely, on the lean approach itself. But despite the data, is it really “lean” that is to blame? My personal experience would suggest that our so-called-lean efforts are simply misguided by our lack of understanding of the fundamental components of the system – BOTH the social AND the technical. If this is true, then we cannot blame “lean” when our efforts are not truly “lean” to begin with.
As long our efforts to become lean remain confounded, it’s impossible to judge the net value of the lean transformation movement. Clarity results from education, and education is enhanced through a common language. I believe that the lean community can take a step forward in our ability to educate the masses by creating commonality of language about what is, and what is not, “lean”. Fortunately, certain pieces of this common language have already been coined within the lean vernacular . . . even if some are a bit tongue-in-cheek; we need only to pull those pieces together within a unified framework for the purposes of communication, discussion and learning.
A Naming Convention for Would-Be-Lean Efforts
If we believe that lean is both a social and technical system, then it makes sense to align our naming conventions with the two dimensions as in the figure below. Although each dimension is continuous, I have split the framework into quadrants for simplicity, and have ordered the discussion by increasing level of destructive ability.
We’ve discussed the constitution of lean (or “Real Lean” as Bob Emiliani refers to it) above within the social / technical framework. A deep technical understanding allows us to clearly define our True North vision, evaluate our current state against our targets and challenges, and to develop the proper course of actions to close the gaps. The social transformation ensures that our people and ready, willing and able to meet these increasingly difficult challenges and to sustain our efforts over the long-term. One without the other does not result in a lean system.
2. Best Efforts
I borrow the term Best Efforts from Deming to name a system in which the social transformation far outpaces the technical understanding of the lean system. Best efforts are not as much insidious as they are simply misguided. People in these organizations demonstrate a sense of empowerment in solving problems and in driving improvement, but lack direction and unity of purpose. It is akin to a sports team on which each player, with great effort and enthusiasm, determined their own course of action on each play with a goal to score more points than the opponent as the sole guiding principle. Surely, this is not a recipe for success. Excellence in the sporting arena requires the best efforts of the players to be aligned with a deep technical understanding of the game: a strategy that best utilizes the skills and abilities of the roster, a playbook to align each individual’s actions to the current situation and challenge, a coaching staff to provide meaningful feedback on the performance of the individuals and on the team as a whole, etc . . .
Becoming lean is no exception. We cannot realize the benefits of a lean system based on best efforts alone. As Deming stated it,
Best efforts are essential. Unfortunately, best efforts, people charging this way and that way without guidance of principles, can do a lot of damage. Think of the chaos that would come if everyone did his best, not knowing what to do.”
3. Fake Lean / L.A.M.E
There is no need to create new terminology for organizations that focus on the application lean methods without demonstrating the respect for people required to sustain the transformation. Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with these organizations about which Bob Emiliani has coined the term, “Fake Lean” and Mark Graban has developed the acronym L.A.M.E. (Lean As Misguidedly Executed). The deviousness of fake lean is that from 10,000 feet, it may look and sound like “lean”. Present may be the familiar tools, techniques and language of lean for the purposes of driving short-term gains such as cost-cutting or headcount reduction. Absent, however, are the focus on people development and the cultural conditions needed to deliver anything other than temporary improvement.
Obviously, L.A.M.E. is not lean, and does not yield lean results. Yet, because the average person looking in from the outside may not understand the difference, it is “lean” that takes the blame for the shortcomings of fake lean. For that reason, fake lean is not only destructive at the organizational level, it hurts us all.
4. Lean Leaches
Improvement efforts that go by the name “lean”, but employ neither the technical nor the social dimensions of lean thinking, could easily be referred to as L.A.M.E. I, however, believe that these cases deserve a name more fitting of their true, parasitic, blood-sucking nature: lean leaches. Lean leaches often take the form of self-entitled lean consultants armed with gaudy promises, flashy marketing materials and a well-rehearsed sales pitch. Their tool-based, event-centric, specialist-oriented approach masquerades as “lean”, but neither significantly impacts the prevailing culture of the organization nor generates anything more than short-term, sporadic improvement. The lean leaches simply attach themselves to a host that doesn’t yet know any better, sucks the life out of the organization, and once the host has caught on, moves on to its next victim. And in the end, it is “lean” that gets the bad name, and we all pay the price.
Let me be clear, I am in no way saying that all lean consultants are bad, just that there are plenty of bad consultants out there, and that it may be difficult to know the difference. Recognize that when it comes to lean advisers, lean lineage and personal experience leading in a lean system are the two best indicators. (Unless, of course, a “Lean Sigma” approach is so much as mentioned, which should be an immediate red flag to turn and run in the other direction).
In the Name of Lean
As long as there is confusion over what is “lean” and what is not, fake lean and the lean leaches will continue to mar the lean name. What can we in the lean community do to help? First and foremost, we need to continue to educate ourselves and each other by understanding deeply the technical and social dimensions of lean systems. Second, we need to use that knowledge to empower us in redirecting our best efforts, in exposing fake lean, and most importantly, in exterminating the lean leaches. In other words, let us not hesitate to call a leach, “a leach” and let us all work together in the name of lean.
Remember, we are still taking entries for the first ever lean song parody contest. See here for details!