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Isn’t lean just a scam to squeeze teams for more production?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Lean is a scam. We’ve had consultants working with us on a “lean transformation” for two years and all they do is put pressure on teams for more and tell us that if it doesn’t work it’s because we don’t try hard enough. I’ve been reading the lean books and I feel that people like you who write about “respect” are pushing a smoke screen that allows consultants to just squeeze teams for more production without ever resolving the company’s deeper problems.


Are you guys pulling? Seriously, I hear what you’re saying and am not dismissing it at all, as I can very well visualize how this can be happening. But before we go further in this discussion, the first question is: Are you really doing lean or have you been sold old-fashioned Taylorism in the guise of lean?

Here are the three core criteria I’d use to evaluate how “lean” is your lean transformation program:

  1. How serious are we about giving value back to the customer? The lean strategy is about leveraging value from the entire supply chain by eliminating systemic muda (this is fractal, from engineering, design, and the supply chain to seven wastes on a workstation) in order to give it back to customers. The rule-of-thumb is expressed in thirds: 1/3 extra value to the customer, 1/3 we keep, 1/3 goes to suppliers who have contributed to the improvement effort.
  2. How determined are we to pull value across the supply chain? A just-in-time pull system is a device to align the entire operation (collaboration across boundaries) with (averaged) real-time customer demand. By withdrawing at short intervals across the value chain, one creates a creative tension that is focused on delivering good parts to internal customers (and then final customer) at the right time in the right sequence, and therefore solving all the problems that appear as a result of this pull tension.
  3. How committed are we to developing people? Working with people means first, not solving problems “administratively” but giving each person the means to solve their own problems (mostly visual management and support) as well as supporting them through both open-minded management and enabling systems so that they do solve their problems. In lean, we hire people to succeed at their jobs, not just do their jobs.

Buyer Beware

I am not dismissing your complaint, but please evaluate your lean effort according to these three dimensions, 0 to 10. This will tell you whether you’re indeed engaged in a lean initiative or just the usual operational excellence program.

I realize this might not help you out of your predicament, but it might help determine where, exactly, the feeling of being scammed comes from. I do not believe that lean is a scam, at all. I honestly believe that lean is a new way of doing business, pioneered by Toyota (who’s still ahead of the game with its lean programs, the Toyota Production System, the Toyota Development System and the Toyota Sales System). We’re trying to figure out what this means outside Toyota and the automotive industry.

As to consultants who are not committed to real lean, but sell the same old tired story as lean (the recent rash is selling grandpa’s management by objectives as hoshin kanri, completely ignoring the “catchball” principle) – what’s there to say? Buyer beware.

As to the charge that writing about “respect” is a smokescreen, well, this is indeed more complicated. Again, what do we mean by “respect”?

The origin of the phrase “respect-for-people” seems to be “respect-for-humanity,” which is quite different when you think about it. We’re not talking about being polite here (although that is good, for sure), we’re talking about respecting the facts that humans are … humans. In other words:

  1. Their time is precious: Every human’s life runs minute-by-minute, second by second. Every second of meaningless work we ask someone to do is an insult to their profound need to do something useful with their life, or at least their working time.
  2. When people are not challenged enough they get bored; when they’re overburdened, they get stressed: “Overburden” is an interesting concept because it can apply in many different situations. Asking someone to do a boring, meaningless, repetitive task is just as much an overburden as a dangerous work environment, or too much pressure on productivity. We’re always overburdening people. The lean question is: How much and on what dimension? What can we do to help them cope better? What can we do to reduce the overburden?
  3. People need to work in teams they can trust: No one is an island, and work is great if you look forward to seeing your colleagues, or can become hell if you can’t stand them. Doing everything we can to support teams and team spirit is a large part of respecting humanity.
  4. People need to be recognized for their efforts: Taylorism has us convinced we need to reward people for their results, and that may be true, but mostly people need to be recognized for making an effort and hate the unfairness of others apparently being rewarded or praised when everyone knows they’re really coasting and appropriating others’ work.
  5. There is real joy in creation: At the end of the day, everyone experiences deep fulfilling joy in creative acts, if the work of creation is not too difficult (such as fighting systems, others, or management to get anything done). A creative idea system is a key – often misunderstood – part of any lean system.

A Hope, Not a Scam

Lean systems are clearly designed to create the conditions for fruitful, meaningful work. How to deal with lean when management’s intent is to use the tool for productivity pressure and squeezing more out of people, I don’t know.

Creating the conditions for meaningful work through respecting people’s people-ness is essentially what we write about: How can we create work conditions where work is more natural and where people are hired to succeed at their job, not just to do their job? Although much of what I write is fiction, I do write it from real-life cases (which I then disguise to protect the innocent and guilty alike). I believe that the points we make are real, and not make-believe to hide an ugly truth.

Is lean a scam? I honestly don’t believe so. I think it’s a hope. Toyota showed us how there can be a better way both to work and compete, and lean is the sum of our efforts to understand this lesson and transfer it outside of Toyota and outside of the automotive industry. Have all our attempts been successful? Clearly not, and we learned many lessons on the way (not the least of which is to always go back to the basics of TPS). Still, here’s the door, and the room is large.

Can any hope be turned into a scam? Absolutely, lean or otherwise. We see this every day. But remember that any scam is a deal between the scammer and the scammed, who hopes to get something for nothing.

15 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani May 22, 2017

It is good to see LEI finally taking on these questions, which have been in existence for decades. However, the respose needs improvement. It should be shorter and address the three concerns directly.

Rick Pippin May 22, 2017

Bob Emiliani is the Diogenes of Lean and I love it. Unfortuntely, the letter writer is left with nothing he can really do. Consultants can't replace leadership.

I will say one of the first mistakes I made was reading a bunch of Lean books without having the right perspective and it cost me, and my customers, my first "Lean transformation". Musashi's assertion of the personal danger of an immature art certainly applies here. The best I can hope for the writer is that he finds a teacher.

I'm clearly no master, sensei, or 20 year Lean/TPS/6S veteran, this is my best understanding of "Respect for People" in Lean so far.


Mark Graban May 22, 2017

Anybody can do any dumb, misguided, or awful thing and label it as "Lean."

Eric Ries trademarked "The Lean Startup" term. I'm not sure if he would ever take legal action against somebody who would misuse the Lean Startup term as egregiously as the story posted here.

I've visited health systems where people are upset and distraught... and rightfully so, because their organization was the victim of a certain consulting group that says Lean is all about cost reduction. It's professional malpractice but, as they say, buyer beware.

It "gives Lean a bad name," but more importantly it causes so much harm and upset. An American Toyota exec said to me a few years back, "If people are really upset about what's happening, it's not really TPS." 

France Bergeron May 22, 2017

Ahh more wolves in the hen house https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/wolf-hen-house-france-bergeron

Stewart Bellamy May 22, 2017

There are good and bad in all professional fields. It wasn't until many years later that I realized just how fortunate I, and the organization I worked for at the time, had been to learn about Lean from two excellent mentor/coaches. In both cases they were hired as consultants. And, although it seemed counterintuitive at the time, they both explained, early in our relationship, that I (we) would know they were being successful when I (we) began to realize we needed less and less of their guidance and corresponding billable hours

Lisa Scolnick May 22, 2017

If consultants have grown roots in your plant for two years and blame you for not getting results, I'd show them the door.  They're fake sensei's.  Lean is meant to include high levels of real people engagement.  That means teaching methodologies and setting guidelines, but letting the team design it and feel ownership.  A good kaizen leader will ask great questions that help the team consider other possibilities when they're stuck.  Bring out the best in people and you'll get the best possible resutls.  Many consultants give Lean a bad name.  It really is a beautiful system and culture, when done right.  So sad to hear about your experience.  Good luck!

Venanzio Figliolino May 23, 2017

I love the statement : "Consultants can't replace leadership."


At moment a lot of companies that in past have not invested in their leaders now believe that "Lean" is the miracle thing that can resolve all their problems generated from years of wrong management.

"Lean" can help to find the right way but cannot learn the driver to drive a car (in little time)



Paul Critchley May 23, 2017

Done correctly, Lean is all about ferreting out those "deeper problems". That's why some folks refer to it as "DNA". Unless the core changes, all the rest is window dressing. It doesn't matter what you call it-TPS, Lean, TOC, OpEx... none of them are magic wands. The writer's consultants need to be focused there; sounds like they're focused on tools (I'm inferring).

Brendon McLoughlin May 24, 2017

Hi Michael Ballé, thanks for sharing! … excellent post and following on from Bob's comment … it is indeed most welcome


I find it difficult to blame consultants, management or staff.  I firmly believe most root cause efforts can be tracked back to a failing process.  In the rare case where the failing is in the person, that person has deliberately diverged from the process and has some measure of understanding that they are adopting a new risk of failure.  If you fail to apply Lean correctly, is that your fault?, managements fault?, the organisational cultures fault? or perhaps even the fault of Toyota? 


I think by majority, it is not a persons fault but a fault of the process of introduction, implementation and application.  Lean is a system thinking (aka 'Plan') process.  Think first, then 'Do' and your on route to 'Check' and 'Act' on this learning.  If you forget to 'Plan' and rush to 'Do' something of value by default you are planning to fail.


When the PDCA process cycle fails your no longer employing a quality management approach such as Lean, Six Sigma etc… and you have chosen to deliberately embrace the risk of failure.  When we push to 'Do' first and fail to pull a culture of lean thinking in advance, who else is to blame if you have deliberately chosen to fail to follow a lean process approach?


As the article challenges us to ask, "How serious…", "How determined…", "How committed…" such answers will have there origins in 'Lean Thinking' realised when we 'Do' … 'Lean Metrics', 'Visual Control' and 'Visual Management'.


"Respect for people" is about shared consideration of shared and divergent thinking of people, processes and the planet (notice I don’t limit my interpretation of the application of "respect" to just people!).


The real scam is not ... Lean because lean respects people when the people respect true lean thinking.


The real scam is … rushing to 'Do Lean' without learning to 'Think Lean' first.


Just my 2 cents … thoughts anyone?

Jon Miller May 24, 2017

Sounds like fake Lean.

A scam is a fraudulent scheme. Promising A with the intent to deceive and deliver B.

What did the consultants and leaders promoting the transformation promise? What did they say "Lean" was?

It is a scam ONLY if they promise CI + respect for people but deliver only pressure to constantly improve.

It is also possible that the consultants are just insincere about respect, don't know how to put it into practice, or are measure strictly based on other metrics.

Lean is not by design a scam. Anyone can turned into a scam.

Greg Yezersky May 25, 2017

One can be amazed how quickly consultants are here to defend themselves.... I am sorry, but everyone must know the simple truth, which is if one accepts money for services, s/he must deliver results regardless of whether management supports their efforts or not. If the management's support is nonexistent, do NOT take the project. If you can succeed with accepted engagement, it is ALWAYS the consultant's failure, jyust become adults and accept the responsibilities... Simple, is it not?

Peg Gotthold May 31, 2017

If common sense was truly "common" in the marketplace, consultants would be lean indeed.

Brendon McLoughlin June 1, 2017

Indeed its an interesting post that keeps dragging me into deeper thought (excellent post Michael).  Tom Murphy and I (See: https://goo.gl/y7dqDc) are coming up with what I feel are even more interesting questions resulting from the post and I wanted to share here in the hope of gaining further contributions on the subject.

For example:

---/// Snippet Begins Here! ///---

"... in the example given, it would share a lot in common with the appearance of a large wooden horse at the gate of lean thinkers.  I'm thinking the 80/20 rule could be applied to the urgency to implement v lack of understanding and in both cases the process of implementing lean has been broken.  What maybe of further interest is ... in each of these three possible flaws for failure I wonder what percentage are deliberate? (Process v People Failure).  I'd like to go further and wonder what percentage of those that who do not deliberately diverging from good implementation process practices, narrow their vision to become 'Value Impaired'.  That is, they become blind to 'Value Creation' and only have eyes for 'Waste', 'Defect' & 'Variation' reduction?"

---/// Snippet Ends Here! ///---

Just to add, as a Technical Project Manager working with lean consultants in SMEs, I agree that a very small number of consultants maybe delibrately rushing to pick the low hanging fruit.  After all, this avoids having to have those tuff management reality checks in favour of getting to a financial cheque sooner than later.  I also feel that this is very much a short term approach to a long term vision that ends well for no one.

Just my 2 cents.

Watson Woo June 20, 2017

Yes, it is a Scam where I experienced it. My coworkers were told that we are going to design the project, we will build it and it is our plan.

So everyone worked hard only to be lose our cubicles, we were put into assembly line work. We lost our privacy, our dignity and our health and wellbeing were jeopardized. Yet, they still tell us that Lean is working. And no matter what we say, a group of people who knows nothing about our work, manipulated the data to show that we were producing more. This group of people became the Lean team.

Then the wool was lifted from our eyes when we found out that the Lean team got the award while we suffer. An article was written in the world wide community telling everyone how happy we were. But the truth is, we are upset, angry.

We got a manager who's only motivation was to move up. My coworkers told our manager to hire more people. He said, 'No.' To save money. And sometimes later we were told that if we are not happy, go somewhere else. Our morale dropped even lower.

So when coworkers are able to find better jobs, and they left, the manager had no choice and he is desparate now to hire more people.

We call our workplace, 'Hell on Earth', 'Prison' and 'Concentration Camp' and many other names.

Annie December 28, 2017

We have implemented Lean in our organisation and although it started well, the development work quickly died when the Lean agent decided to leave the company. After that I feel like the whole Lean thing is just an act and the management is keeping up the appearances. We have come to a stage where the employees are worn out of constant changes and pressure and many have started to look for new opportunities elsewhere, because the process is more simplied therefore the work is more tedious and because management does not communicate nor support the teams. Root causes to the problems are clearly visible but we continue putting on a show every day handling things in Lean. As myself, I think it is the lack of change management and leadership from management why the Lean implementation is clearly failing.

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