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Does lean have an ethical perspective other than goal-oriented efficiency?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

As a follow-up to your previous column on the question of whether lean has a spiritual dimension, does lean have an ethical perspective other than goal-oriented efficiency?

Another very interesting question and please understand that as with the question on the spiritual dimension of lean, this is way above my paygrade, and I certainly do not have an authoritative point of view on this. Still, it’s really interesting and worth exploring, so here are a few thoughts.

First, to my mind, lean as a whole is a project to understand what Toyota did (and does) differently, why this performs better than other business models, and how can it apply outside of Toyota, outside of the car industry, outside of industry and so on. I personally always find it useful to go back to what Toyota has to say about a topic.

It’s hard to know what really goes on in a 350,000-person global company, but if the practice is difficult to study, the ideal is pretty clear as Toyota aspires to set of guiding principles to describe the kind of company it seeks to be. They can be found on their website:

  1. Honor the language and spirit of the law of every nation and undertake open and fair business activities to be a good corporate citizen of the world.
  2. Respect the culture and customs of every nation and contribute to economic and social development through corporate activities in their respective communities.
  3. Dedicate our business to providing clean and safe products and to enhancing the quality of life everywhere through all of our activities.
  4. Create and develop advanced technologies and provide outstanding products and services that fulfill the needs of customers worldwide.
  5. Foster a corporate culture that enhances both individual creativity and the value of teamwork, while honoring mutual trust and respect between labor and management.
  6. Pursue growth through harmony with the global community via innovative management.
  7. Work with business partners in research and manufacturing to achieve stable, long-term growth and mutual benefits, while keeping ourselves open to new partnerships.

There is clearly more in there than goal-oriented efficiency, as several of these explicit goals are about contributing to a larger good:

  • Be a good corporate citizen of the world
  • Respect culture and customs of every nation
  • Contribute to community development
  • Provide clean and safe products to enhance quality of life
  • Advance technologies to fulfill needs of customers worldwide
  • Enhance individual creativity and the value of teamwork
  • Honor mutual trust between labor and management
  • Pursue growth through harmony
  • Work with partners to achieve stable, long-term growth and mutual benefits.

We could draw them  as circles of responsibility:

  1. Responsibility to customers through clean, safe, and innovative products that fulfill their needs
  2. Responsibility to employees to encourage creativity, teamwork, and mutual trust
  3. Responsibility to business partners to seek win-win partnerships
  4. Responsibility to local communities
  5. Responsibility to national cultures
  6. Responsibility as a corporate citizen of the world.


Thank you for your question, because it is very true that lean discussions tend to jump in at the level of let’s improve this or that, and let’s use this or that tool, but hardly ever asks the more fundamental questions of who are we improving this for, and why?

I can definitely see how these circles of responsibility could deeply affect the practical problems we face on the Gemba. For instance, if business is down, do we fire workers? So we reduce the footprint? What impact will this have on the trust between management and employees? What impact will this have on the community?

For instance, Toyota is shutting down its Australian operation. Ford and GM have left the country, and it could not see how to maintain its activities and supplier network simply on its own. I have seen firsthand how much heartbreak and hard Work the closure spurred, with a management team committed to both protecting customers through quality (their project is “last car best global car”) and how hard they are exploring options to find jobs for their employees, opening the doors of the factory to other manufacturers, and trying to sell the benefit of hiring experienced problem solvers.

Sadly, I have seen many other companies engaged in plant closures and their problem is to minimize the cost of shutting down the plant, regardless of consequences to others.

Beyond Toyota, we can ask ourselves the question the other way around: Are there ethical principles we should follow to make lean Work?

From the Gemba, and having been part firsthand on about two dozen lean transformations, I’d like to (tentatively) propose five ethical principles that are embedded in lean thinking, and must be considered to succeed at lean:

  1. Seeking to help customers solve their problems rather than trying to profit from their difficulties
  2. Respect others by looking at each person as an individual and not a generic case, and understanding the specifics of their situation, and listening to the obstacles they face from their point of view
  3. Always look for the next step, seeking a better way, even when the odds seem against it, which tends to require both creativity and courage
  4. Understand the profound interconnectivity of all activities and the need to both Work together and be more flexible, as well as accept that not everything can be controlled
  5. Always stretch the circle of responsibility to see how one solution at one level works when taking a wider view, all the way to the impact of what we do on society.

Better Angels

I don’t know how general these can be, and I believe this is the start of a conversation, not the conclusion. Yet I do feel that when these commitments are not reinforced daily in any lean transformation effort, without a moral compass so to speak, lean tools are open to many strange and self-defeating interpretations.

To answer your question, yes, I feel that reducing lean to “goal-oriented efficiency” is too narrow a perspective. Lean thinking, I personally believe, is built on a broader set of assumptions about human nature, such as our penchant to master our Work and find joy in creativity, as well as our instinct to help each other and participate to a greater good when we’re given the opportunity. These “better angels” of human nature are, to my mind, at the root of lean thinking as it developed historically at Toyota and spread beyond it. They’re built into the system. If we ignore them, we condemn ourselves to local results from using the tools, but larger failure in transforming the company.

4 Comments | Post a Comment
Doug Rickarby November 15, 2016

Thanks Michael for advancing the understanding and nice to see a land down under get a mention, despite the circumstances. Of course, every company has it stated goals, but far less have the depth of credibility to go with it. It is only ever earned when the chips are down and they are up against it. Our circumstance is somewhat unique for Toyota, which says a lot also, but I foresee their will be much written and to be learned from how we went about it in years to come.

Michael Ballé November 17, 2016

Hey Doug! My hat off to what you guys are trying to accomplish - rarely seen anything harder/braver. Hope you sort it all all right!

Owen Berkeley-Hill November 21, 2016


Thank you for raising this as a post. It's been on my mind for a while, ever since I read the book, The Puritain Gift, (on the recommendation of John Bicheno) by the justifiably grumpy brothers, Kenneth & William Hopper.  They argue that it was the "gift" that was so generously handed over to Japan after WWII.  It was the "gift" that was flushed down the toilet when the B-schools persuaded American industry that they could develop better managers faster through the largely academic route of the MBA.

I have seen Amazon celebrated as a Lean company for the digital age even though the New York Times published an article describing how the pickers had to work to inhuman schedules because Muri was OK.  Would you regard VW as a Lean company? I'd bet they have a VWPS, but does thast make them Lean if they think it is OK to cheat the emission tests?

And why do leaders like Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini, Martin Winterkorn, Sebestian Coe rise to the top?  Perhaps because, as you say, the Pavlovian knee-jerk when someone mentions Lean is to look for something, anything, to improve, and not see it as perhaps the most significant advance in our understanding of how a good leader should think, believe, act and behave.  That is why we have silly amalgams which don't make sense, like Lean Six Sigma, which, I believe, caters for the vast majority of current leaders who cannot think beyond Command & Control.  LEI must take some responsibility for this because no one has seriously challenged academia, particularly the B-schools, for ignoring Lean or consigning it to the hedgerows for the last quarter century.

Doc Hall November 23, 2016

Of course, lean has a very deep ethical connection, beginning with workers and customers. For company leadership, the real test is maintaining respect for all your stakeholders when financial conditions are so dire that reductions must be made. Then it is how they are made that reveals true ethics. 

Owen Berkeley-Hill raises the issue of financially-centered MBA and undergrad business education. Not all business school programs are financially centered, but most are. I taught in a B-school for 32 years, and yes, students were at least exposed to lean. However, students who thought that profitability was the main or only goal could never see lean as anything other than cost reduction. 

I have certainly met managers who held profitability to be the supreme goal, or regarded a company as just a cash generator, and they never attended a B-school. If they had that predisposition, B-school just reinforced it. 

We really need to address something deeper than either B-school or "mechanical" tool-centered lean. That is the fundamental belief system of people, whether owners or managers or other. People do not change deep beleifs easily, not if they are steeped in them almost from birth, and that discussion quickly passes beyond "rational logic." To a true beleiver, facts don't matter. They will not act on them even when they see them. 

Lean in the hands of a profit-first, fiancially controlling management cannot get beyond just a variety of industrial engineering. They literally cannot see beyond that. 

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