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The Fight for the Meaning of Lean

by Michael Ballé
December 19, 2013 | 10 Comments | Post a Comment | Permalink

At a World Bank conference in October, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argued that the key to modern industrial policy is “learning to learn” (how do we create a learning culture and a learning mindset?) and acknowledges how Toyota’s invention of just-in-time production spread around the world and created enormous increases of efficiency well outside of Toyota’s sphere of interest. (Ahem, that would be the Lean movement, let’s pat ourselves on the back!).

And here in France, the very institutional daily Le Monde recently had a piece on Lean in its “culture and ideas” pages. It looks like lean ideas are becoming mainstream.

Indeed it seems like every one and their dog is doing Lean. Lean has become the dominant value-improvement methodology. We’re no longer a bunch of crazy guys fascinated with Toyota’s exponential growth, astonishing processes, and exotic senseis. We’ve grown up. The blogosphere is loud with people expressing sharing their personal take on Lean.

But what “Lean” are we talking about? Is it the “to develop products we need to develop people” Lean we’ve been taught? Or is it the “improve productivity to reduce costs” Lean corporate types like. Or both? 

In learning theory, the psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget distinguishes assimilating thinking (making new facts or ideas fit with existing mental models) versus accommodating thinking (changing one’s own mindset to fit new facts or ideas). Assimilation means seeing a zebra as a small striped horse; accommodation means realizing zebras are a distinct species, with different behaviors and a different place in the eco-system, and so we change our list of species to accommodate zebras. 

Assimilation is the default mode for most humans, to the point of cognitive dissonance. We deny information that challenges our own deeply held beliefs. This is one of the more stable findings of social psychology, backed up with thousands of experiments. Accommodation (aka “getting it”) is hard work and rare. 

A few lean ideas have indeed spread well beyond the lean movement. “Batch is bad and flow is good” is still hard to do in practice, but is no longer disputed. Improvement (whatever that means!) is a key part of running any operation. Facilities should be 5S-ed. Problem solving rather than telling/delegating is also making it’s way in the business zeitgeist.

But many other core lean ideas are still far from being picked up as common sense because they require a deep change of outlook for most executives and lean practitioners: customer usage versus customer education, gemba versus boardroom, operator focus versus middle management focus, kaizen versus action plan, PDCA versus big ideas, intense collaboration versus team spirit, etc.

I suspect the war has moved on and that the front is no longer “Lean or not Lean.” Everyone believes they’re doing Lean, but many have assimilated Lean to traditional Taylor-ist thinking and are using lean tools to even further micro-manage the work of team members, as I’ve seen in many scary uses of short interval control boards. In many companies I visit, the lean program’s focus remains on middle-management accelerating implementation of action plans, rather than helping the operator solve their detailed problems and encourage suggestions and involvement.

No rest for the weary or the wicked alike… the fight is now about the very meaning of the “Lean” word. We’re all doing Lean these days, but just what kind of Lean is it? There is a straightforward acid test to know which side of this barricade you find yourself.

Just ask: “What is the mission of the operator with the tool I’ve just introduced?” 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Daniel Breston December 19, 2013

Hi Michael

What do you do when they want the other Lean?  yes we want the operator to be productive but can you save us costs, automate, maybe even get rid of the operator first?

If this is the management goal, do you walk away?  How do you get them to ask for the lean you describe?


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Michael Ballé December 19, 2013

I have no idea. The good thing about having a hardcore reputation is that by the time CEOs get to talk to me they know what they're looking for :)

I was today on the gemba with a CEO and one of the engineers had found a way to reduce lead time for prototype parts from a month to 3 days by using an internet site that has automated quotations and sends the part in the post. That's exactly what this CEO is lookng for: smart suggestions from the people who do the work.

I feel it's a matter of intent: what do you aim for? The center of the target is engagement: kaizen spirit as demonstrated by suggestions that actually help (any one can make suggestions, but suggestions we jump on because they move us forward in the desired direction). Failing that, we can aim for developing people's autonomy in solving specific problems. Failing that many programs aim for using the tools and hope for the best - maybe someone will learn something.

Leaders are leaders - they've been chosing by the shareholders to set the course - they're intent are their own. I doubt any one can change a leader's mind unless the leader is seeking that particular answer in the first place. I certianly don't know how!

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Dan Riley December 20, 2013

In my book Look Before You Lean: How a Lean Transformation Goes Bad—A Cautionary Tale, the anonymous company that is the victim of a badly run lean transformation got its start more than 80 years ago when its industry was wild around the edges and without standards across the broad middle. That company presciently set itself up to correct that situation by carving out a highly rewarding niche as the industry arbiter of good standards in products and services. It seems to me (admittedly as an outside observer, albeit an invested one), that the time has come for someone in the legitimate lean world (hint…hint, LEI) to put forth some codified standards that companies shopping for lean can refer to as guidelines. Such a good housekeeping seal of approval would help save many companies from buying into what Mark Graban refers to as “LAME” lean and would save the legitimate lean community from having its brand tainted by those trafficking in lean, but not really practicing it…or worse, practicing it badly.  

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Charity Skelton December 20, 2013

Any suggestions of manufactures near Berlin, Germany; that are of high tech products?
I'm searching for an experienced leader of operations in high tech manufacturing. I have come in contact with more "supply chain"/logistics professionals lacking true operations.

Is this common in Germany since outsourcing is preferred?  Any suggestions or insight please.

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Michael Ballé December 21, 2013

Hi Charity,


Will you e-mail me directly about it? mballe@esgconsultants.com, I know a really good guy in Germany and I could get you two in touch.

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Jon Miller December 20, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Hi Michael

Thanks for the excellent post.

The lean label has been assimilated and associated with many methods and practices that are at best incomplete versions of what Womack & co described as lean production, at worst just a bag of tools that brings unsustainable short-term improvement. Marketing has gotten far ahead of engineering on this one.

I am not sure there is a fight for the meaning of lean. Fighting means asking uncomfortable questions about our integrity, and that of others who practice the lean label. Fighting means taking sides, making enemies, while most involved in lean do so to make money.

Ideally we should fight together for truth, for fairness, for sustainability, but we each fight for our own and so we have a muddled and "wild west" lean.

The lean label has been surprisingly long-lived. It would be interesting to do a root cause analysis of this as some of the causes (commercial success, lack of standard definition which allows lean-lite / fake lean to pop up) appear to create the conflict with lean's supposed quest for integrity and improvement.

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Michael Ballé December 21, 2013

Hi Jon,

Good point as always - indeed Lex the Lean Post editor made the same post. I called it as I saw it because to me, it is indeed a fight. And indeed there is a n element of X-er jealousy in it. In France, for instance, we worked hard to create the market - as did, to be fair, McKinsey - so that others who haven't made the same learning investment could make a quick buck selling "fake lean". 

Okay, having had this off my chest, to your second point, I do believe the reason the label is long lived is precisely because the founders were academics and we all went into lean for real out of curiosity and excitement and not to make a quick buck. For instance, LEI's steadfast refusal to create a certification program (and become rich in the process) is part of its longevity.

To my mind, the lean label is still relevant because of three reasons:

1. Toyota remains dominant - modern management was dominant as long as GM was, so I don't see why not think the same about lean and Toyota

2. Lean missionaries are spontaneously into non transactional stuff - sure, they get paid for talks and days, but none of us has had - hitherto - the intent of creating a lean consultancy cash machine, mostly because the cool thing about lean, for us, is its enduring mystery and we're all instinctively resistant of turning it into an algorithm. We're not altogether wrong either as shown by Dan's previous comment of what can happen when consultants attack lean transformations without being themselves in a learning sensei-deshi tradition.

3. 1 and 2 blend to attract some of the most open, friendly and innovative entrepreneurs out there who get the leazn bug and show spectacular successes with their companies, and catch the excitement of the lean "mystery" at the shop floor. Their enthusiasm and results makes them natural ambassadors for "real lean" and so others think "i want this", without necessarily being ready for the full commitment this requires, and so back to 2.

All this to say that in true yin-yanf way, I believe that many of our internal weaknesses as a movement are also factors of our enduring success, but as you know, I believe that irony is the driving force of the world and if I had a religion it would be kindness (precisely because I'm so bad at it :)). 

In the end, I think you are right - I don't really believe that there is a fight for the meaning of lean, words will become whatever we use them for. I do fight for a very specific idea, which is that the operational criteria for lean (In the Deming sense) is practicing within a sensei tradition - whether my father who learned with Hayashi who worked with Ohno, or from Dan Jones who learned from Nakao wjo learned from Ohno and so on. Or indeed, learning from Masaaki Imai.

I also believe that we old fashion leaners must continue to tak about the old lean, as we do on The Lean Edge, as I try to do with Gemba coach, to create beacons and reference points, for people out there to have a conversation with themselves in terms of what camp they stand for, which side of the barricade they're on, and... oh, sorry back to fight. My kung fu is better than your kung fu, hey!

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Dan Riley December 21, 2013


Thanks for the indirect answer to my question as to why LEI has not initiated some kind of certification process. I understand and appreciate the desire to remain above the fray. However, as I've observed and stated often, the field of play is changing, and it may be time for LEI to decide if it's better to be Ceasar's wife or watch lean be abused to death. If it's profits that scares them off, I'd suggest simply posting on the LEI site a listing of critical do's and don't's that shoppers for lean professionals can refer to (as well as lean practitioners themselves who may need a self-exam...). As I often sing to myself, "I'm just a boy whose intentions are good/oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."

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kevin kobett December 24, 2013

I do not believe the third party certification route is the most efficient hiring route.

A profitable company has had problems to solve along the way. All companies have present problems to solve. Give a job applicant ten past/present problems and ask how she would facilitate the solving of one of these problems.

I would expect the first step would be to go to the Gemba. I would be looking for how the process/equipment is inspected and how front line employees are approached.

Next step would be to ask for SOPs, production/quality assurance records and customer feedback. I would consider it to be a great blunder to miss a data source; such as not seeking customer feedback.

I believe the most important lean step is identifying the correct leader whether it is through hiring or promotion.

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Rick Foreman January 07, 2014
Great post and reflection. Over the past few years much has been said about the true definition of lean and it is more than obvious that some consultants have cashed in on what my good friend Mark Graban reference to "LAME" or fake lean. I like Michael's reference to the enduring mystery. Real "lean" {we often use continuous improvement because folks in the administrative or office area do not seem to connect with the word "lean." Lean at times can come across as something done to them instead of with them} is like Christmas time and a journey of excitement seeing those in the Gemba reflect and act upon new ways to improve processes. This leads to further engagement that has a positive influence on the individual, the team, the organization, the enterprise, the families and ultimately the communities and customers. We know of many who are certified but lack the "why" factor behind CI/Lean and what it can bring to many. Sounds kind of mushy but the battle is to keep the "why" factor in clear view along the journey. For me a different level of value comes from understanding the quality of life for all involved can be improved by daily engagement, connection and influence in the gemba. With the focus on people and the culture, amazingly those other results such as profit, productivity, customer satisfaction, job security, etc., seem to fall into place. I'm not certified other than many years of learning by doing in the gemba and we work diligently to develop future leaders in the same path. We're seeing a culture changed, sustained, and leaders, who are beginning to see a deeper value system involving a very positive "why" factor for continuous improvement. The battle is to keep it real with value across the multiple enterprises.

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