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What is Lean Management?

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I sometimes wonder if we should bother making a distinction between management, and “lean management.” The late Peter Drucker is our foremost authority so far on “management,” and he tells us, “The essence of management is not techniques and procedures. The essence of management is to make knowledge productive.” Pretty good place to start, I’d say, and a definition that probably covers “lean management” as well as any management. But if lean thinking means a different approach to business, then it must also imply a different approach to managing by the people striving to operate in a “lean” way.

My own view of management comes from a little more than 10 years experience working with Toyota, combined with about 15 years of working with many of you to try to understand and use those principles and practices. I’m not sure which experience has taught me more -- learning directly from Toyota, or trying to help others learn what I learned at Toyota.

Either way, what we’ll discuss in this space represents neither Toyota’s view nor the views of the many companies and individuals I have worked with and from whom I have learned so much. Nor will it represent LEI’s view. As the disclaimer goes, “The views expressed in this space are solely those of the author, who bears all responsibility for mistakes, errors, lies, and misunderstandings.” I will not go so far as to accept responsibility for the consequences should any of you attempt to try any of the ideas we explore here at home or work. Sorry, but you’re on your own.

The Spirit of lean management
I don’t actually have a firm plan for this space. So, I figured, why not use that condition as a starting point? Keeping an open mind about what this space could become may not seem to embody the “planful” aspect of lean management. And yet this approach is consistent with the critical lean management principle of not jumping to solutions. lean management is not about quick answers, but about going through a thinking process to investigate, analyze, and understand. To try, perhaps to fail, and learn.

In short, lean management is very much about asking questions and trying things, or encouraging others to try things. lean management itself is not much about providing the right answer but it is very much about asking the right question.

So, what we’ll do in this space is just explore. What to expect -- exploring questions. What not to expect -- answers. Here’s a great quote that captures the spirit of what I’ll aim for:

“The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions” - Claude Levi-Strauss.

That statement captures the core spirit of lean management just as it also embodies the spirit of learning. And unfortunately, traditional management all too often lacks that very spirit. Traditional management places tremendous pressure on individuals to be right. You must have a Solution, must know The Answer. That sounds good enough on the surface. Who wants to be “wrong”? But that attitude starts us down a familiar and dangerous path. Hiding problems is endemic in almost every company I know and is the surest way to absolutely undermine the practice of effective lean management. Exposing problems, developing countermeasures, and learning from them doesn’t just support lean management; it is lean management.

Robert McNamara, the Secretary of State for U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, has been picked on mercilessly in recent years, and I’ll join in the piling on here. During a review of the mid-1960s U.S. military effort in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, an Army officer attempted to inform McNamara that there were many problems that he needed to be aware of. To which the Secretary replied, “I don’t want to hear about your problems, I want to hear about your progress.” Contrast that with a couple of his contemporaries, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss quoted above, and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz:

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” I’d say the latter expresses a pretty good lean management aspiration.

See you next time,

John Shook
Senior Advisor, Lean Enterprise Institute

I view this column as a trial. We’ll start out with a short, weekly discussion from me that focuses on some aspect of “management”, or “lean management”. You are then invited to send in your comments to shook@lean.org. In the following week’s column, I may or may not respond directly to your comments (assuming any) and either carry the topic further or introduce a new one. We will review how things are going in a couple of months. We may decide to continue going as-is (P-D-C-A/Standardize), or continue with adjustments (P-D-C-Adjust), or abandon (P-D-C-Abandon). Stay tuned.

8 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban November 6, 2008
John - Please do not "abandon"... I hope you'll continue the blog and I'm excited that you're starting this experiment.
JWDT November 9, 2008
Mr. Shook,

Please continue, the insight you are providing is very valuable, insightful and extremely timely!
Justin Tomac
John Settineri November 14, 2008
Mr Shook:

Have been finding your writings and commentary on this blog extremely insightful and beneficial to help further understand and think about what lean leadership and management is really about - Managing to Learn is a work of art. Since my role in the organization where I work is to lead and advance our learning process around this, it is especially valuable. Please keep this up!

John Settineri
Scott Sorheim December 5, 2008
Glad to see a blog for LEI! I've subscribed to some of the discussion forums via RSS and was often wondered when LEI might start a blog. Glad to see it. Thanks.
Anonymous December 8, 2008
Mr Shook,

I am very junior in this. Eventhough I have a degree in Industrial Engineering, but not able to see what I have learned in the great company like TOYOTA makes it hard to visualize the real impact it has on business.

But your experiences & write ups definitely helps me. I hope you keep pouring down you insights.

Thank you for sharing.
Ralf Lippold December 9, 2008

I am very grateful that you share your wisdom and insides into a field that is still so much misunderstood by today's management folks.

Keep up the great work.


Lean Man March 25, 2015

You can make this website much better: put a nice visualization of the process on top and explain with five short sentences. Then gradually go into details. 


This site, unfortunately, is a great example of how not to explain things. 

Kathy Lavender May 4, 2016

Thanks for sharing this, John, looking forward to reading more from you.

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