Lean Manufacturing

Is Lean a Superstition?

By Jon Miller Published on February 18th, 2008

The Training Within Industry blog took up the debate on “Is lean a religion?” a few weeks ago. The article points out that when done right, lean is more of a philosophy that guides how you do thing and how you lead people.
It’s true that lean can turn people into missionaries of sorts, wanting to help others see the errors of their ways… or rather the waste that is all around them. Continuous improvement is hardly a religion, although one could say that respect for people in itself could be a religion of sorts.
In a similar vein today I came across a quote from an author named Jose Bergamin, “A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” Is lean a superstition? Hardly, but the quote above reminds us to keep a place for doubt in whatever personal philosophy or management system we believe in. There will always be a better one, and woe to those who close their eyes to this fact. If we let our belief trump skepticism and the quest for knowledge, then even lean may be superstition.
I am sure there are some companies out there struggling or failing at implementing lean manufacturing because they are treating it as though it was a superstition. “Put tape on the floor, that’s what lean companies do” or “Go ask everyone for suggestions, that’s what lean companies do.” Etc. Ask “Why do we do this?” even for lean, whether because of curiosity or doubt and you will begin to find the science behind the superstition. Black cats, ladders, stepping on cracks, your lucky number and your belief in lean manufacturing all deserve a healthy dose of skepticism.
Will it really work in a job shop? Can a company with a unionized workforce with 40 years of disrespect from and towards management really every embrace lean? Can lean be implemented when the workforce is 100% temporary? How easy is it to express these doubts about lean in your organization?
There is a difference between stubbornly digging in your heels against change and posing challenges to and expressing doubts about the latest corporate bandwagon rolling through town. Lean leaders should value and listen to these doubts and use them as learning opportunities, or as discussion points and a means for building consensus.
What doubts do you have about lean? Hold onto those doubts until you find a satisfactory answer, and then harbor another doubt. Otherwise you may begin to treat lean as a superstition.

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