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Follow-up to your comments on the “lean is a scam” column

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Dear Gemba Coach Readers,

I’ve been following the “scam” discussion with interest. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Maybe the original questioner’s use of “scam” was a bit of an exaggeration.

I agree with Jon’s point: Scam involves a fraudulent scheme with intent to deceive. I suspect there’s more denial – both on the part of the client and the consultant – than actual intent to deceive. The denial, however, can be quite spectacular, and borderline dishonest, for sure.

I don’t know about scams, but I can share the most absurd lean implementations I’ve seen. I won’t name names or places to protect the innocent and guilty alike, but I’ve done several Gemba walks in places that have arduously worked with consultants without ever facing the flexibility issue.

For instance, imagine a one-product-per-cell plant, with all the lean bells and whistles – production analysis board, tuggers, kaizen to reduce waste, the lot.

When you look closer:

  • The plant runs – barely – with massive overcapacity. The unutilized capital costs are killing product developments that go to lower costs countries.
  • Non-quality is rampant, up to 50% of the margin. Although “red bins” and analyses are visibly displayed, the batching and low utilization doesn’t allow for any real “stop-and-fix” and much less “observe-and-discuss” so real quality issues are not identified and addressed. There is an andon but it’s never pulled.
  • Operator work is not fluid. Management hasn’t  tackled the challenges of multi-product cells or multi-skilled workforce for either mix flexibility or volume flexibility, the real stumbling blocks to movement fluidity (standardized work) have not mean addressed and a lot of overburden has been standardized – which is made worse by the optimization of the cells through the consulting “improvement” projects.
  • The pull system is really a push system: although there is a pick-up every hour, the “train” or tugger is not taking  every product every hour, but simply carrying away whatever production has been made available (they replaced forklifts with  a tugger. ).
  • There are no stable teams as operators must be constantly moved from one cell to the other to fulfill the production plan on a one-product/one-cell  set-up.
  • There is no real people engagement as a result. The suggestion system, when it exists, comes up with very few, not very interesting suggestions.

And as a result, conversation with engineering on value analysis/value engineering (VA/VE) projects is mostly impossible, so there is no chance of “leaning” the company where it really counts.

Such factories are not aiming for lean. They are still striving for perfect Fordism, after all these years. Lean ain’t that hard to grasp:

  1. Henry Ford figured out how to flow black Model Ts efficiently, which was great as long as people we’re happy with black Ts – and then he drove the company into insolvency.
  2. Alfred Sloan, taking Durant’s lead, figured out that people wanted a diversity of cars, and the way to do so was to finance single model line in the Ford way, but creating a range through mostly marketing.
  3. Kiichiro Toyoda figured out that he needed to do the same but would never have the capital for single-model lines. After the company went bankrupt in the early 1950s, his cousin Eiji Toyoda learned through trial and error how to offer both a wide range with more capital intensity through systematic development of flexibility.

It also turned out that quality and flexibility go hand-in-hand. You can’t switch easily from product A to B on the same equipment if you have quality issues (particularly startup quality issues). And learning to switch more seamlessly from A to B will make you investigate and solve many quality issues; built-in quality and just-in-time flexibility are linked.

The scam part, such as it is, is that senior managers hire consultants to optimize nonflexible lines through lean tools, and consultants accept. In effect, they stick a “lean” label to Taylorist tools made for a Fordist line:




Fordist, single product direct cost-optimized flow line

Green (value adding)-Red (non value adding) operator movements within the cell

Taylorism: engineers design the one best way and get operators to apply it.

Toyota multi-product capital optimized flexible flow line

Flexibility and quality through more fluid movement in terms of balancing and standardized work at different levels of mix and volume.

Lean: trainers and team leaders work with operators to figure out together how to have higher quality, greater flexibility and easier operations.

Where the lean community does bare a part of the blame is that too many lean experts can walk past these pretend-lean efforts and simply not see the absurdity of what is going on.

Which brings us back to why lean is so interesting, and still here 25 years later: it’s new. It’s different. It’s better adapted to today’s market condition than Taylor/Ford/Sloan, but of course, so many people, in defending whatever they’re doing or their academic positions, are involved daily in muddying the water.

The only way to avoid falling into a “lean scam” trap is to commit to your own learning effort and plan before teaching others in your company. Lean is a practice, which can only be acquired by learning-by-doing. There is no shortcut, no sidestep to learning. Through doing and reflecting, you change your mental models, and then you change your value system. Which is how you progressively see the dream merchants for what they are, and avoid the scams.

4 Comments | Post a Comment
Salim Reza June 11, 2017

Dear sir

Thanks for your article. I work at a leather industry and management try to implement LEAN but all points what you describe in this post exist in my organization. Now what can we do to overcome from this situation.

Michael Ballé June 11, 2017

Salim, I honestly do not know; I can try to point towards what I believe is "real lean" but I can't help anyone achieve it - it's a matter of discussing it internally, observing what we're doing and considering change one thing at a time. Have you considered a book club amongst the management team to discuss ideas? 

Joseph June 14, 2017

Salim, I understand the difficulty you are facing in the plant. I have been hired and worked at facilities that look for individuals with Lean experience. But when you get into the facility they expect you to pull Lean tool out of your tool box to transform the plant. In those situations, I just revert to some basics that I can control in the work area. 5s and visual management can go a long way without having to incorporate big lean movements.


Watson Woo December 19, 2017


Here is a great article:

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

Lean is to respect people, the workers, who are the front line staff, or the subject matter experts.

Here in the government department; we once had a consultant black belt lean who came in to run the whole place, his hidden agenda was to do a bait and switch and to keep his job.

We were scammed into 'buying into it' the idea of Lean. But the government team has always been doing continuous improvement. Mail room, Validation, and scanning. But the consultant did not want to hear our ideas and kicked out the people with good ideas and did not listen to the human resources.

The workers lost their dignity, privacy and morale.

People left their jobs for better and healthier jobs. Yet, the management is still trying to bring back lean.

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