Is Lean dead?

Is Lean dead? is the provocative title of a podcast hosted by Mark Graban with guest Karen Martin. The question, the podcast description says, is “easy to discuss, but hard to answer”.

The reason Karen proposed to discuss this question is because of hearing and reading about “what’s next”, “is it time for something new?” and what seems to be a waiting for a “post-Lean” world.

There is an invitation to share thoughts about this, but instead of leaving a comment on Mark’s podcast-related post, I add my two cents here. I hope Mark and Karen won’t mind this piggybacking.

Some takeaways from the podcast

From 4:35 Karen frames the topic and from 6:05 she shares her thoughts, especially two reasons for the “what’s next?” question (rephrased by me):

  1. people don’t get great results from Lean and quit too early with the conclusion Lean doesn’t work
  2. the attention span, especially in business, is (very) short

By 19:45, Karen reminds the listeners that Lean is made of layers of quite “meaty” subjects and is made for constant learners. Yet Lean teaching programs cannot (?) do not go very deep into Lean beyond chosen tools. So it’s up to everyone to go for a never-ending learning journey. At 43:00 listeners get the wrap-up.

My thoughts on this

Ironically, the introduction of new methods and tools was once mocked as “the flavor of the month” with the preconceived belief that it won’t last. Now that Lean has demonstrated a longer lifespan than other management ways, it seems to be precisely too lasting in a time where  fashions come and go very quickly.

The methodologies life cycle

However long Lean is around now, it follows the same life cycle curve than others, made of a slow takeoff as long as long as no organization publicized extraordinary achievements with this approach or no book draw wider attention to it. Once the word spread, the methodology gets hype and many organizations and consultants go for it. After the hype spike, there is a loss of interest and a final plateau. In this later stage the methodology does not totally disappear but does not get the attention it once had.

In that regard, the methodologies life cycles look very much like Gartner’s hype cycle for technologies.

I started my career in the midst of Total Quality Management (TQM) hype, in the mid-1980s. Who aged less than 40 knows about TQM? It is still around in some form, like in the various ISO standards, but it does not get the excitement of the all the problem solving tools deployment TQM once had.

Similarly what happened to Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)? Parts of it is embedded in Lean and some companies keep TPM alive, but I barely hear anything about it anymore.

My friend and mentor Bill Dettmer witnessed the same phenomenon with Theory of Constraints. Not totally gone now, but barely known and not likely to get its fame back again. Six Sigma is said to be dead or is reduced to SIPOCs and DMAIC.

So maybe time has come for Lean to lose attention of the mass and remain a thing for true believers?

Quick wins and newcomers

The impatience about the post-Lean next thing can also come from the younger staff that did not experience the first attempts with Lean, when the organization was so inefficient that almost any structured tool deployment and kaizen events demonstrated significant quick wins. After a while and continuous sustained efforts, the remaining pockets of gains are few and hard/long to address. Newcomers experience Lean from hearsay or don’t notice anything about Lean because they are amidst of a more or less Lean environment. It’s just part of the scenery and nothing to get excited about.

Furthermore, many people have been repeatedly exposed to Lean methods and tools, have been involved in Lean workshops, kaizen events, sketched Value Stream Maps and identified wastes, sorted out, cleaned up and rearranged stuff 5S style. They share the feeling of being Lean, of being done with Lean.

The startup praise of failing fast and pivoting

My last thought about the possible fading of Lean is the growing influence of the startup movement and the praise of failing fast and pivoting. It keeps surprising me that failure can be praised, even so I understand the value of learning from failures. One Undesirable side Effect though may be the spreading of the belief that anything that does not work quickly is a failure – ok, we learned something – and it’s time to move on with something else.

Pivoting is getting away from an original idea that does not prove good fast enough and go for something else that can be 90 or 180 degrees from the original intent. What can make sense in a startup venture, stopping the experiment before the scarce resources are burnt up, may not be the suitable option where long commitment to cultural change and constant learning is required.

With allusion to Kahneman’s work, I think that for business there is a fast way and a slow one, and Lean is definitely a slow one.

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

Jargon doesn’t make an expert

In a blog post I read the warning about candidates exaggerating their insight by using lot of jargon. It was about Lean Management. The author stated that when recruiting, mastering enough Lean vocabulary is important in order to catch candidates exaggerating their insight by using jargon. Any talented Lean manager can explain the same concepts without Lean management specific language, the author wrote, but inexperienced or unskillful interviewees may lean (pun intended?) on “concept-dropping.

Even so I agree with everything above, the heavy use of peculiar lingo is not specific to Lean and Lean “experts” are not even the worst.

>Lisez-moi en français

I remember a recent (July 2017) conference in which a speaker delivered a pretty convincing presentation about a somewhat uncommon approach we are familiar of. One of my colleagues, intrigued, went to see the speaker and asked him a question on a specific aspect only a true experienced expert could answer. This very question reminded the speaker of an important call he had to make and he vanished. He was indeed only “concept-dropping”.

Nothing really new. Molière, our most famous (French) playwright and actor (1622 – 1673) used to ridicule the physicians of his time in several of his works. Those experts were depicted as pompous and disputing in fantasy latin about this or that just to impress their audience or others fellow “experts” with fake erudition, while their patients usually were bleeding away.

In French slang, a “faisan” (pheasant) is a crook, a good-looking but stupid pretender. I used to hear fake experts being called “faisans”. Nice feathers, but that’s barely all.

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn