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Is Lean Getting "Fat?"

by Brent Wahba
June 1, 2016

Is Lean Getting "Fat?"

by Brent Wahba
June 1, 2016 | Comments (16)

In case you missed the last 10 years of news, the Financial Services industry hasn’t exactly put customers first – confusing clients with too many complex instruments that don’t always support a secure retirement. But now the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is hard at work on a “Personalized Investment Advice Standard of Conduct” that requires advisors to work in their clients’ best interest. For instance, brokers could no longer push higher-fee investments unless they benefit the customer more.

Some sort of intervention is undoubtedly needed in this scenario, but is more oversight the best solution for serving customers? Shouldn’t marketplace natural selection automatically control bad behavior? Customer service and self-regulation may be good long-term, auto-replicating business practices, but sometimes they aren’t enough to stop a chaotic industry driven by more powerful short-term phenomena like greed and self-serving bloat. Biologically speaking, these forces are more akin to eating addictions, and can result in counter-(re)productive outcomes like congestive heart failure.

So what does any of this have to do with lean? Well, our “industry” is over 25 years old now, and it’s getting hard not to look in the mirror and notice we have put on more than a few figurative pounds, too. Yes, lean has successfully spread around the world and gone from manufacturing to nearly every other type of value stream. BUT, we still aren’t sure how to successfully teach it, there’s not much listening to customers (the users of lean) to find better ways of delivering what they really need, and capacity to train/consult/coach/certify/write/talk/broadcast across the social media universe has noticeably outpaced adoption.

Like natural selection, some controlled mutation (in the form of learning experiments, for example) is good for advancing the species; but too many isolated, counteracting, and un-adopted variations can have a negative impact by choking off the propagation of true innovation. Simply put, it looks a lot like lean is being overproduced by complicating and pushing it too hard from the supplier side – and that bloat is risking lean’s survival.

Don’t believe me? In years of discussions with practitioners, clients, consulting colleagues, and even casual outside observers, several recurring questions have emerged:

  • Why are there are SO MANY books, articles, and presentations “explaining” lean, yet there is still no consistent definition and it is therefore all left up to the users to sort out? Could variation and confusion be why lean is often muddled with Sigma, Taylorism, Japan, cost reduction, and job cuts?  Another source of confusion is Toyota. Is it THE model of lean we should all be following, THE model of how to derive/become lean through respect and problem solving? Or is it one (of many) good examples of synergistic business success factors?
  • Why are 99.999% of books, articles and presentations about unbridled success when actual realization (as in sustained transformation) estimates range between five and 25 percent. Isn’t the lean community, of all people, supposed to be discussing problems, gaps, and what we learned from failure so we can get better? This sounds like a pretty critical burning platform for all of us.
  • Why do some organizations make much larger, faster, and longer-lasting improvements while expending much less effort? What can we learn from those companies that achieve lean’s benefits with just 20 percent of the effort and only a small fraction of the outside coaching resources? (see article Are We Doing Lean All Wrong?)
  • Why don’t more “experts” either have first-hand experience implementing lean in their own organizations or else have spent significant time scientifically researching it in the field? Is Toyota more successful because their teachers have actually used TPS themselves?
  • Why do so many coaches make iean so prescriptive and training-/reading-focused? Isn’t efficient and effective learning situational, experiential, experimental, and JIT? (see article Coaches Need Improvement Too)
  • Why will the worst offenders nod in agreement with all of this and then bemoan that all the others won’t change?

“Choice fatigue” occurs when consumers are stuffed with too many buying options and not given an easy path to digest them all. In the end, they just feel sick, don’t buy anything, and move on to another venue. If lean becomes too fat (i.e. complex, varied, and meaningless), it will eventually become too hard to convince others to partake – especially if three out of four customers have a negative experience and an Internet connection.

Broken systems often do require intervention or oversight to bring them back into control. The financial industry has the SEC, but there is no Lean Pope (although “John Paul Shook” has a ring to it), no Supreme Court to interpret the Toyota Production System, no lean FDA to issue warning labels, and not even a Bernie Sanders fighting against all those “self-serving elite lean insiders!” There thankfully is, however, a consumer-activist intervention model that can effectively disrupt a chaotic market. It occurs when customers become much more vocal about what they really need, perform due diligence before committing to a purchase, and then share their experiences (both positive and negative) to drive more rapid improvement.  There may not be a “Yelp for Lean” yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start by answering these questions about your organization’s lean efforts:

  • What aren’t you getting from lean today that would make it much easier and more successful in your organization?
  • Can you run parallel experiments or at least talk to other organizations that have compared different flavors of lean to learn which worked better in different circumstances?
  • Can you talk to other organizations that didn’t succeed to find out why? (Note: be a little skeptical of consultant/writer “Why Lean Fails” lists – there is often little science behind the reasons)
  • Is your organization more focused on reading, training, doing more “lean things,” and “doing lean right” than experimenting with how to satisfy customers and run a better business? Could your own behavior be driving unnecessary demand for fat lean?

Don’t get me wrong – there is still A LOT of exciting progress in how to implement lean faster and better. But just like tasty junk food, the nutrients are being offset by excess fat and calories. Without a diet, lean faces the threat of extinction by a thinner, better-looking methodology with a lot more self-control. Please pass the lean lean.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  musings
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16 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt June 01, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Some great points Brent. How we learn is just as important, if not more so, than what we learn.

Reply »

Brent Wahba June 01, 2016

I couldn't agree more, Ken.  It's just an observation, but it seems like those organizations that deliberately focus on improving learning as a skill & process, do better overall - regardless of their methodology.  Thanks, Brent

Reply »

kevin Kobett June 01, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

"Why don’t more “experts” either have first-hand experience implementing lean in their own organizations"

I believe this can be attributed to personality. Lean doers are always thinking. When not thinking, these lean doers are collecting data by listening. Although at first glance they seem introverted, the have strong relationships with front line employees.

These lean doers hate office politics. It's illogical. Plus their accomplishments are threatening to the boss. When I start a new job, I look for those considered to be trouble makers. Usually these people become my allies.

Most of the lean doers I know could never give a lean speech. They would just pick a problem and get started. Thankfully, it's easy to identify lean doers.

Reply »

Brent Wahba June 01, 2016

Good point, Kevin.  So how do we learn more from the "lean doers" - especially if we don't have (or maybe just don't see) many around our organization?  Thanks, Brent

Reply »

kevin Kobett June 02, 2016


Too distracted to think. In a few hours, I will make an offer to someone famous to join my lean startup. He already has the customers. He likes my idea because he invented something similar about the time my patent was issued.

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kevin Kobett June 02, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

We learn thru stories. This is a second hand story from someone I have never met. I call her "Thanksgiving lady."

A meeting was held in November to dicuss the problem of getting a shine on the base of the automatic welder. Thanksgiving lady came up with the answer first and had some fun. She kept saying, "It's like Thanksgiving." When everyone was convinced she wasn't focused on the task at hand, she said, "Wrap up the base like you would wrap up the Thanksgiving turkey."

I'll never remember the 6Ss. I will always remember C means cover. When I come to this site, I am looking for stories. Wish people would share stories.


Reply »

Brent Wahba June 02, 2016

Love it - thanks, Kevin!  Brent

Erik Lindborg June 03, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Brent writes a brave article and it satisfyingly stings with truth and forces reflection where there are blindspots. I have not yet mustered an adequate response to the many points raised but I’ll start with this: At times I think lean practitioners hide out in “explaining lean” when the culture cannot bring itself to embrace failure as an option, even the necessary failure that produces learning in PDCA cycles.

“Another source of confusion is Toyota. Is it THE model of lean we should all be following, THE model of how to derive / become lean through respect and problem solving? Or is it one (of many) good examples of synergistic business success factors?”

Good on you for having the cojones to ask this blasphemous question.

Reply »

Calvin L Williams June 03, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Great post Brent! You make several excellent points. I can't tell you how many people I've met who call themselves Lean experts whose only real experience was to go through a certification class. In my opinion, if you haven't had the opportunity to fight through the frustrations, rejections, disengagement, resistance, sabotage, conflicts of interests, lack of support, and all the other perils that come with a lean implementation; and then break through to the acceptance, small victories, buy-in, and eventually culture change, then you're not quite an expert.

Also, the single biggest detriment to most of the lean programs I've seen is that there was never a clear "North Start" for everyone to understand and follow. A great example would be the Toyota slogan "In pursuit of perfection". In this case, the North Star is perfection. Then you could define 'Perfection' as the complete elimination of waste, at which point you can actually quantify where you are against perfection.

Once you have that North Start defined and quantified, it gets easier for people to find their own path to it instead of blindly applying lean tools and saying "we're doing lean now". 

The fOS at factoryoperatingsystem.com is great tool for this because it provides a clear metric for where you are against perfection. From there, its up to you and your team to use this "North Star" to find your way there.

Calvin L Williams
Continuous Improvement Strategist


Reply »

Bob Emiliani June 04, 2016

The real question is: Why has it taken so long to realize Lean is Fat? This was apparent a decade or more ago.

Regarding your first six bullet points:

1. DEFINITION: In Krafcik's 1988 paper, "Triumph of the Lean Production System," Lean was not separately defined and was given to be synonymous with TPS (as its generic term). The word "production" was dropped in favor of "management" in 2007 (LEI 10th anniversary gathering). Krafcik's paper reflected TPS, not The Toyota Way (TW) which first made explicit by Toyota in 2001 -- but which was apparent if one had more closely studied available published materials or if one was listening carefully to Toyota people. Definitions of Lean have been bouncing around ever since, as have definitions of "Lean thinking"

2. SUCCESS FOCUS: The lack of discussion about problems, gaps, etc., is characteristic of a business way of thinking rather than a scientific way of thinking. It does not help when Lean movement leaders have long focused on success and ignored failures and all that can be learned from them. My focus over the years has been weighted far more towards understanding failure because of its obvious prevalence.

3. FAST vs. SLOW PROGRESS. It is clear that the organizations that have achieved larger improvements more quickly focus on industrial engineering-based shop floor kaizen -- Toyota-style kaizen.

4. EXPERTS: TPS+TW is not knowable in the sense that other things are knowable. This leads to a false impression of expertise (by self or in the view of others). Once again, the focus needs to be on kaizen, as that is the process and experience that constantly reminds us nobody is an expert.

5. PRESCRIPTIVE LEAN: Prescriptions are helpful because it can make things more understandable and actionable. There is customer demand for prescriptions, and there is an army of people who are willing to satisy that demand. But in the case of Lean, prescriptions do not come with warning labels that describe the limitations and hazards

6. AGREEMENT: The worst offenders are nodding in agreement because there has long been a practice of groupthink within the Lean community. Few think independently, and those who do usually get into trouble. The blame orientation remains firmly in place.

In closing, the Lean community has been slow to recognize and respond to these problems. It's future will depend on that happens next.

Reply »

Mark Graban June 05, 2016

I've been recently reading a book from 1994 called "Why TQM Fails." Take the first few chapters and replace "TQM" with "Lean" and it could be a contemporary book. History repeats itself. Executives think they can delegate quality or improvement. Training focuses on tools. The approach isn't tied to strategy.

The Lean community and everybody working in it should reflect.

So should those organizations who said "we tried TQM and it didn't work" and "Six Sigma didn't work here" before they once again write off Lean as "something that doesn't work."


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Bob Emiliani June 05, 2016

And the same is true of Scientific Management before that, as the books from the 1920 and 1930s clearly show. The failure to learn from history is proving to be a costly one http://tinyurl.com/zl84u99.

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kevin Kobett June 06, 2016

This is how I would assess the current state for gap analysis. Dust off the suggestion box. As with everything else, the suggestion box was mismanaged in the past. This time, place a question above the suggestion box. This question could come from customer feedback, "Customers are complaining about moldy dry dog food. The customer is not likely to purchase a bag that got wet after packaging. How is this happening? If you have any thoughts you can place it in the suggestion box or talk to your supervisor."

You know problems exist if suggestions are placed anonymously in the suggestion box, especially if the suggestion is great. I have anonymously submitted suggestions that were adopted. I did not want to, but had no choice. I cannot walk away from a problem.

Is there a supervisor that receives many suggestions? This exhibits trust.

How are you assessing the current state?

Reply »

Brent Wahba June 07, 2016

Love it, Kevin.  Simple, to the point, engages lots of people.  Brent

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Brent Wahba June 07, 2016

Thanks everybody for all the comments on what the problems are.  I am not disagreeing (or necessarily agreeing) with the reasons, but I do have a question.  If we've been going through the same basic failure cycle for about 100 years, doesn't that point to either a complex or combinational failure mode?  They (management) aren't willing to do the hard work while we (the writers / teachers / consultants) haven't yet found a repeatable way to make any of this either 1) a high enough priority or 2) easy enough to make managers want to do it "right?"  Support for this comes from those organizations that don't take the classical view, don't do the laundry list of "right things," and still make significant progress.  Either they found an easier path or just got incredibly lucky, but I would bet on the former. 

Just a hypothesis, but a big part of our fat lean problem could be confusing correlation (as in everything Toyota does) with causality (the critical few things that led Toyota to TPS).  Too big and confusing a laundry list and nobody will want to stick with it... 

Reply »

Bob Emiliani June 08, 2016

"...doesn't that point to either a complex or combinational failure mode?"

It does. That is why Lean transformation process failures must be formally analyzed http://tinyurl.com/h35pktq.

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