Why lean is losing it’s mojo (but not it’s significance)

The last 3 years we have seen a renewed explosion in the industrial interest on lean. Ignited by the two waves of economic downturns since 2008 and fueled by consultancy and lean missionaries, literally every business are now going lean. The shared aim is reducing costs and improving customer service by “working smarter not harder”. Today we have “lean services”, “lean construction”, “lean in the office”, “lean healthcare”, “lean ship-building”, “lean logistics, “lean management” and lean this and that… As lean disseminates from its origin in the automobile industry to services and the public sector, I see the word “lean” growing far beyond its roots and often even intentions. For me the term is losing it’s mojo.

Through my recent experience with teaching managers “the toyota production system and lean production” it has struck me how several managers initially tend to understand lean simply as “the new better way to operate with some customer focus and removal of waste” contrasting the “old way”. Thus you have before lean and you have lean. The richness, pureness and thoroughness in the lean production philosophy is lost. Left is a catchy word used to label all kinds of improvement projects that includes some process mapping and 5S techniques. Adjacent – but still essentially different – production philosophies such as SixSigma, TQM, BPR, TOC, WCM, agile manufacturing etc are merged under the lean umbrella – or should I say lean parasol. From a theoretical point of view this is of course both wrong and a pity. But if this is becoming a shared understanding of the word “lean” in business it will be as true as anything: After all, reality is subject to social construction.

A good thing then, that the underlying philosophy and logic of lean is not changing, even if the term “lean” is. Five years from now I think that we do not talk about lean anymore, because it provokes negative feelings of all the so-called “lean transformations” failing today. Instead we talk about “true lean”, “real lean” or going back to “Toyota production system” in the manufacturing sector. Better terms for “lean” in other industries will also surely arise. What are your suggestions?

9 thoughts on “Why lean is losing it’s mojo (but not it’s significance)

  1. Pingback: Become Lean, Become Better: How Lean Six Sigma Will Better Your Business « Rombiz Co

  2. Love your blog, in fact arrived by checking yahoo and google for a comparable issue to this post. Which means this might be a late post nevertheless keep up the great work.

  3. I agree with you. The word Lean did not originate by no means from Toyota or from the people who originated with the concept of the true “Lean.” Lean was a word that the consultant Jim Womack coined in order to drive traffic to his work. Before he pushed the word Lean, everyone knew it as JIT. But of course, everyone also understood that it signified more than the strict definition of JIT which allowed for him to change it. He than said; “Look, it means so much more, let’s call it “Lean,” and by the way, I own the domain on the word.” Thus he coined it Lean and made millions off of it.

    • You’re right that far too often lean is about celebrating a few people who got their ideas from others. But I will give Womack, Jones & co the credit for wrapping and selling the ideas in such a compelling way that the western world woke up… After all they did manage the biggest research project operations management research have probably ever seen. I guess it is all about being at the right place at the right time for lean consultants as well (maybe we should quickly define and sell “just-in-time-consultancy” as a brand new idea…?).

      • Exactly, give him credit for that. They did a good job of that, that’s for sure. I like that definition–JITC– let’s coin it. It will be even better because it will apply to more than just Lean Consultancies.

  4. Hi Ives. A good question… Ii is always raised everytime I talk to people who have started to apply lean in healthcare, government administration and even universities. “Lean” is a much used (and misused) term, so it is not possible to give a definitive answer that apply to all definitions of it.

    In another post (Is Lean Six Sigma relevant for the 21st Century Manufacturing?), I refer to professors who aruge that lean applies to all businesses that have processes. I would also reccomend the book “This is Lean” by Modig and Ahlström (See the book review post).

    What do you think are the boundaries of lean?

  5. Hi;

    I couple of weeks ago I found your site after thinking about how or not ERP supports Lean. Again I find your site when the words mojo and Lean re in the same search. I should just read all of your posts to see what my next thoughts will be about …

    My post on LinkedIn is

    Can Lean regain its mojo & where to look for it ?

    I start from 2 simple observations that I think are relevant here. One a colleague of mine recently gave a talk but first asked the audience how many have had 1 or more Lean projects at their companies? Essentially all hands in the room went up. Then he asked how many were happy with the results? 1 hand only. Someone else in the room commented to the respondent “didn’t have a high expectation for what Lean could do?” The second observation is remembering the contents of a cassette tape of Womack’s book and a long discussion of the value of getting to a lot size of 1.

    My supposition is that Lean people have been focusing at the micro level and lost a vision of the macro level of the shop floor. Many of them came up from the shop floor and wanted more discipline on how things are done, much like the Japanese. Lean has done well focusing on the individual product and operation steps. The tools are geared for this etc. I will admit I don’t know all of the details and someone can easily argue me down. Observation 1 above suggests (nay, screams) there is a problem somewhere.

    The issues of lot sizes of 1 or smaller lotsizes and their systemic effects has not been explored or improved. In fact many system level issues have not been explored at all. How do we estimate what waiting times will be after all of these good improvements at the operational level? How can we reap all the benefits that can accrue from these changes? For example: what is the right lot size if I can’t get to lotsize 1? What is the right WIP level if I want to do a pull MRP? Doing the micro Lean things doesn’t answer these questions …

    If we can add the right tools to allow people to study and solve these problems and realize it takes a different train of thought to find solutions, Lean can get its mojo back. Starting from the macro level, Lean could direct where effects should be focused e.g. setup reduction at one work station, cross training at another or process/scrap reduction at a third. If not, then I fear my colleague’s survey is the beginning of the end of Lean and it becomes another slogan de jour like JIT.

    Greg Diehl (greg@build-to-demand.com)

    • Dear Greg, thank you for stumbling upon my blog time after time:) I really appreciate your kind feedback. I see your point about “micro lean”; the “concept of zero” (zero inventory, zero waiting time, lot-size of one, etc.) is a brilliant idea that can guide our thinking. But it does not assist a company find its “optimal” level of inventory, waiting time or lot size – given all other constraints such as risk, service levels, cost, people etc… The good thing? Still room for more research. (Ps! Your lean game on build-to-demand.com looks promising). Merry Christmas!

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