Does “Lean” Work? Can Anything Work Well Enough to Avoid Eventual De-Bunking?

I just read an article that seems to indicate that “lean” may be starting to suffer the same type of fate as “TQM” and “re-engineering” and pretty much every other approach or solution that gets lots of attention, then gets widely implemented because everyone is doing it. Fads always die out. Great ideas become lame when they become fads. We all know this…Andy Warhol created the concept of everyone getting their “15 minutes of fame”…but still, we always seem to be ready to jump on the next trend as soon as it pops up.

Of course, “lean manufacturing,” or lean anything (as in, avoiding/eliminating waste)  is still a useful approach for certain situations, assuming it is implemented in a smart way. That is true with everything. The odd thing is that the “lessons learned” are the same every time no matter which trend you are dissecting.

  • You need employee involvement/engagement
  • You also need for leadership support and ownership
  • Always tailor the <insert technique or method name here> to your situation — don’t use a cookie-cutter approach
  • Don’t expect the new thing to solve all your problems while requiring no work or discipline to implement it.

This is all common sense though. Why do we not learn it?  I am pretty sure that if I went on the speaker’s circuit with the above message, I would gain exactly zero traction…why not? (I once had an article for publication rejected because the reviewer thought that “everyone knows this already. We don’t necessarily do though…you are right about that.” I don’t know what to say about that. It may be that as simple as “common sense and thinking are hard to do…so we want a magic bullet…even if we know there is no such thing, do you have one”?

Or is it just different people learning these same lessons every time? Do we just not know how to pass on this kind of wisdom? Does everyone get promoted during the initial hysteria and the next crop of people repeat the same process because they saw that it worked for the previous person in their role?

On the other hand, maybe we need a new thing every now and then to get excited about and recharge our organizations. Once it is implemented and the benefits are gained, maybe it is reasonable at that point to start looking around for the next thing. The article on lean (mentioned above) indicated that many organizations did have initial gains but then plateaued.

I think one aspect is that people often want to make a career out of a specific technique. Whether that is Six Sigma, Lean, or something else, this allows you to differentiate yourself in the market (whether inside or outside a company). It provides opportunity for visibility and advancement. So if you are a line manager and you get efficient with your process you get some recognition/reward. If you have a swat team that comes in and “fixes” lots of peoples’ processes, you get even more recognition/rewards. But then the “thing” has become the primary focus, rather than the business.

Oh well, it seems unlikely that any of our services are at risk of becoming a fad in the near future (but if one did, I’d be OK with that). In fact, our entire approach is based on the assumption that we need to understand client/business needs first, then figure out how best to improve things, and then design and implement a solution. It’s a lot like that unpopular common sense approach described above. Wait…maybe that could become the next new thing after all. If I could just come up with a catchy name for it…

One Response to “Does “Lean” Work? Can Anything Work Well Enough to Avoid Eventual De-Bunking?”

  1. Joe Sener writes:

    Anything invented by man can be corrupted by him. Nothing wrong with Lean that good training and great leadership can’t fix!

    Keep up the good work, Pete!

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