Tips for Lean Managers

Are You a Million Method Man?

By Jon Miller Updated on May 20th, 2017

Are you a million method woman or man? Too many well-intentioned lean implementations are. The million method man has a tool or method to solve any problem they encounter. In the best of situations they are heroes and teachers who bring relief and understanding. In the worst of situations they are goats and pushers who talk before they listen, ignoring the broader human context of the problem.

Nineteenth century American poet, transcendentalist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Here is a list of 40 lean manufacturing methods, tools and approaches. They share the common feature that they are numbered, and only this fact limits the list to less than fifty. A continuous improvement glossary I maintain as a sort of a personal occupational illness has more than 400 methods (entries). This is just on lean operations so I would imagine there are easily thousands of methods if we expanded this across specific related fields such as quality, organizational development, strategy, etc. No doubt we would approach a million by expanding our search to glossary items outside the field of manufacturing operations. But let’s not.

As Emerson said, the principles for excellence through continuous improvement are few:

Maintain a long-term focus on purpose

Treat people are assets whose value increases as they grow

Lead as if you had no power, only influence

Go see for yourself on the gemba

Optimize processes end-to-end rather than locally

Flow whenever you can, pull always

Use standards to enable continuous improvement

Make problems visible

Stop, call for help and fix the problems immediately

Ask why repeatedly until the root cause is found

Plan slowly by developing consensus and act quickly to implement

Engage everyone in solving problems

This is not intended as “the” final and comprehensive list of lean principles. It’s all I aspire to at the moment. The list is largely based on the work of many from over a century ago, formalized and popularized through Deming, Toyota and now the proponents of what we call “lean”. Your list of principles may differ from these. You may or may not agree with all of these principles. We all agree that the millions of methods work. Sometimes we argue about which set of methods and tools we should adopt (e.g. the “lean or six sigma?” non-issue).

Yet seldom do leaders engage their organizations in discussions about which few principles will guide them in choosing their methods. Given the average of three years that most chief executives serve in that role and the immense pressures to deliver quarterly earnings, it takes a leader of vision to think deeply and look beyond the methods, and do as Emerson wrote:

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”


  1. Evan Durant

    December 24, 2009 - 3:26 am

    I’ve never been a fan of transcendentalism, but I love the “true north” approach. I’ve had some experience getting tripped up on methods, and the solution is always to get back to principles.
    (I’m sure there’s a 12 Days of Lean Christmas in there somewhere.)

  2. Steve Cowan

    January 8, 2010 - 2:37 am

    Hi Jon,
    Just a quick note to say I’m glad I found your website. I’ve just been ‘promoted’ to a new position with a new title to assist with the implementation of Lean Manufacturing and the acquisition of an industry recognised quality standard (SC21).
    The concept of ‘Lean’ was new to me and I’m currently attending training sessions with a Consultant Trainer. Your articles are helping to ‘broaden my mind’ and provide more lateral insight.
    I’ll try to return soon to read more and perhaps add some of my own experiences during my journey. Its going to be interesting as we have just merged two 50 year old companies and were then bought out by a ‘Group’. Some of the workforce are most definitely ‘old school’ and will find it hard to understand the need for ‘Lean’ and are already resisting the change before it has begun.
    Apparently, I was offered the position of becoming the Company’s ‘Lean Champion’ because I was recognised as a ‘thinker’ who can bridge the gap between the work force and management. So, I guess I better start with improving the lines of communication from day one.
    My own background is in manufacturing engineering and fabrication. I have 11 years UK military service and prior to this position I was employed in Quality Assurance/Supply Chain. The job title given to me is Quality Improvements Co-Ordinator as I will continue with my material control duties along with Lean.
    Thanks again

  3. Jon Miller

    January 12, 2010 - 2:54 pm

    Hi Steve
    Welcome to the lean community! It sounds like you are well-equipped to handle this challenge, between your manufacturing experience, military service and quality background. As you are already detecting, lean is much more about the people than about the tools so my advice is to apply whatever change management practices you can muster, communication being the first and constant companion.
    Looking forward to updates from you on your journey!

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