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?