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.

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6 thoughts on “Is Lean dead?

  1. Thanks for a thought provoking post. Interesting to hear about the life cycle of methodologies, and how TPM and TQM are no longer talked about. Is there a methodology that you think is now at the peak of inflated expectations?

    Regarding LEAN for startups, I think that failing fast makes a lot of sense when viewed through the theory of constraints. For an early stage startup, their key constraint is lack of knowledge about whether they have a good product/market fit, and failing fast is a strategy to address this constraint. Eric Ries (who coined the term Lean Startup) also talks about how as the startup grows, the constraint shifts (it becomes about scaling and efficiency), and if the founder doesn’t notice the transition and change behaviour accordingly then the company will have trouble. Ries doesn’t use the word “constraint” or “bottleneck” but after I read about TOC I realised that’s really what’s going on. The constraint shifts as the company grows.

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    • Hi Tobias, thanks for commenting. I am not sure, given the hype around many movements, methods, approaches… if one is at its peak.
      I think Theory of Constraints had its heyday and Lean seems to be on a down slope. Yet these two may experience hickups thanks to the agile and startup community. Will they regain the popularity they once had? I am not sure.

      About the shifting constraint, this is a common phenomemon and if not taken care and anticipated, the new constraint will harm just like the one “elevated”.

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  2. Thank you for this interesting discussion.
    I’m a beginner compared to you gentlemen, but I think Lean is alive and well. It hasn’t met everyone’s expectations, but most revolutions don’t.
    I wish I was more able to communicate how Lean works for me and has helped me change healthcare (a little). My guess is that others have the same feeling.
    But I’m still excited, challenged, learning and helping my company simplify.
    Thank you.

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