Lean Manufacturing

Fake Lean and the Spotting Thereof

By Jon Miller Updated on May 22nd, 2017

If the peddlers of fake lean were as easy to spot as antler salesmen we would have a much easier time staying free of them. I’ve seen some great deals on antlers, and like the emperor’s clothes, the many leaders who have paraded themselves in the benefits of fake lean are reluctant to do anything but sing their praises. While lean is journey of continuous improvement and there is no such thing as arriving at state where we can say “we are lean” there are plenty of false paths, dead ends and wilderness areas on this journey that we can label “fake lean”. Here are a few ways to spot fake lean deployments.

The 20th year reunion. The words “We’ve been doing this for 20 years” or “We did this 20 years ago” are a sure sign of fake lean, unless they are followed by “and this is why this time it will be different”. When this magic number of 20 years is spoken, it is usually a sign that people think they have grasped lean to the point where it feels familiar or even readily attainable.

It’s true that many people and organizations have been legitimately pursuing lean for 20 or more years but these people never experience the moment where they think “We did this 20 years ago,” because they are constantly encountering and emerging from their own ignorance, realizing how much they have left to learn. They are still growing. The statement that “We are already doing lean,” or that it was done years before and lost can be a sign that people are holding onto the past, the status quo or that they are mistaking past efforts at lean lite for the deeper and fuller lean culture. If they truly understood the scope of the change that lean requires, they would not make this statement. If they had really done lean, they would be talking about why it did not sustain and what will be done differently this time. If this is not the conversation, it’s a sign of fake lean.

That Indiana Jones feeling. Sometimes on the lean tour takes us to the islands of ancient artefacts and lost cultures. The tour guides explain the meanings of various artefacts and monuments, passed down from past generations of managers, some meaning inevitably lost in translation. The natives spy us warily, wondering how this latest group of consultant-adventurers plan to dig up, destroy or recreate the past. Edgar Schein taught that there are levels to culture, namely artefacts (things you can see), behaviors (what people do) and the underlying assumptions (what’s in our minds). There is a neat parallel to these levels in lean culture and fake lean. Point to any artefact in a lean company and people can explain the deep assumptions and demonstrate the supporting behaviors. When lean tools, systems or artefacts exist without support from the underlying layers of culture, chances are good this is fake lean. Cultures are lost when civilizations become decadent, losing their grip on the values and assumptions that resulted in the behaviors that made them great, leaving only the artefacts.

Certified lean. The only certificate for lean should read “certified to practice”. Unfortunately many see certification as an achievement, a laurel to rest on, an excuse to shift focus onto whatever is next after lean. Unless we are talking about quantitative measurement of various performance metrics, the “certified lean” label is little more than an admission that a bit of fakery has gotten into the lean. A nutrition label tells contents of something we consume. Could a factory be “certified lean” in the same way that certain cuts of meant are certified lean? Most like so, if a full accounting of the inputs were taken and benchmarks were established. A “certified lean” label for non-food products and services should identify how much value added labor, energy, and materials went into making and delivering it. The price of an item rarely reflects its accurate total cost, or even attempts to grasp at environmental, social and macroeconomic costs associated with how we produce and deliver goods. What most businesses mean by “certified lean” is a combination of acheivement in certain improvement and/or performance metrics, the implementaiton of certain lean systems, and the education of a certain number of people to a certain level. These are static measures at best and no predictors of future success. If “certified lean meat” means 80% lean and 20% fat, shouldn’t “certified lean” in a business tell us how much waste we are paying for?

The time out. Like rust, lean never sleeps. It never goes on holiday. Chomping out waste and developing people into problem solving leaders is like a holiday for lean. In fact lean has been sleepign for so long within most organizations that it is well rested and eager to get to work, without any thoughts of holidaymaking. So what does it mean for lean to take a holiday? In fact what happens is that the lean deployment leader or lean manager takes a holiday, and lean progress grinds to a halt. Or worse, the lean deployment leader leaves the company and the flow of continuous improvement activity ebbs. This is a sign of fake lean because lean when done correctly engages the maximum number of people and creates sustainability by building the new ways of working into daily work, even at the cost of getting fast results. Only fake lean depends heavily on a few charistmatic lean leaders to keep it moving along. The stalled lean implementation due to a shortage of lean talent clear evidence of fake lean.

Consultant-free lean. All companies must outgrow their consultant at some point. In fact the only way to use a consultant effectively is to extract all of their wisdom as soon as possible, and then to find a new one who will slake the thirst for knowledge. Most companies don’t do this very well at all, as evidenced by the absence of managers with notebooks and pens in hand following the consultant and copying down what the consultant says and does, asking “Why did you say..?” There are only three instances when a student no longer needs a teacher: 1) the student has surpassed all teachers, 2) the student is dead, or 3) the student is practicing fake lean. While I encourage clients to envision the day when they are self-sufficient in lean, I will never guarantee that they can continue to sustain, grow and overcome new hurdles without additional outside help. Whenever a client says, “In a few years when we no longer need consultants…” it’s time to remind them that the moment when they no longer see the need for the teacher is when that need may be the greatest.

Don’t lose heart if you find that your organization is on the fake lean, lean lite, LAME or other sidetrack. The continuous improvement journey is all about do-overs. Revisit the PDCA cycle from wherever you are, starting at check, adjust, then plan and do. You can keep the antlers as souvenirs.

  1. Ton Bil

    June 1, 2010 - 5:28 am

    After I was leaning to lean, now I’m learning to go lean. Thanks for encouraging that I don’t lose heart, Jon.

  2. Brandon

    June 1, 2010 - 7:25 am

    Jon, great post this rings true in so many ways. I especially like the 20 years point. On your consultant free lean section I would say that everybody always needs a teacher/mentor even if the student is very knowledgable. However, this mentor shouldn’t be a consultant forever.

  3. John Santomer

    June 1, 2010 - 9:46 am

    Dear Jon, I wonder what it would take for the stakeholders to wake up and see that they are starring at the same pooch with the fake antlers? Artifacts are the most prevalent signs of lean disarray. Let’s see, in 20 years I should hope the company has outlined a succession plan starting from 5 years onwards, a career path carefully laid out for its lean leaders, under-studies that have close involvement with all the company’s strategic plans…etc. All of these ensure sustainability or at least lessens the risk of a lean crisis large enough to impact the company or at least bring to it considerable losses. The Indiana Jones feeling would only surface if the organization has completely lost tract of it mission vision. Can we still call it certified lean if the success gained was only for a short period the program was implemented? But in the end, the process reverts back into a situation worse than before the program started. Some of which do not require benchmark metrics to show that it’s another relic/artifact to add to its museum of disasters? Even for a consultant, how do we know that he has wringed his last drop of knowledge to share with the company? What if the layers of management directly in contact with the consultant has grown stagnant? And if also the “Aha” moment Oprah so profess – one that a lean leader should have at any point, at any time or any level in a lean improvement cycle has been lost? No matter where the leader is in the PDCA Cycle, this should always be the mindset. “Think outside the box”. That does not go to say that root causes should first be discovered… Where and to whom should these concerns be brought to and have light be shed upon? Do we need to rally all the people in the organization already disjointed from several re-organizations and re-structuring to realize a real lean improvement? In all of the above, are these the right set-up to begin lean transformation with 4 or 5S?

  4. Jon Miller

    June 1, 2010 - 12:32 pm

    Hi John,
    You raise some very good and specific questions. You probably know the answers already.

  5. Robert Drescher

    June 1, 2010 - 5:09 pm

    Jon you are so right, everyone in an organization needs to be taught certified (or more accurately stated allowed to practise) real Lean needs constant stream of new ideas, people need to remember all the tools become part of something else, a living breathing organism. Too many companies hire consultants for their expertise when they should start by teaching themselves and their staff the basics. Then when you know what problems you and your people cannot solve, go out and find the right person to help or fill the hole. Fake lean wastes everyones time and does nothing, but bring ruin upon all involved. Short sighted ownership and management have microeconomic managed us into a mess, real Lean can dig us out, but it will take humility and a change to long-term goals. Men like Pierpont Morgan once knew that to build an economy, required goods jobs, and ownership teaming up with labour and managers. The Asian attitude is not foreign to our continient just forgotten, Honda and its fellow Asian tranplants have done more to build the world economy while Western business tries to build Mexico, China and India. There would be nothing wrong with that if they did not do at their domestic economies’ expense, but somehow they think services can replace production.
    As to John the stakeholders will not open their eyes till it is too late, because most of us do not realize we are the stakeholders. Pensions, and other funds control far too many companies, and all their owners and managers care about are short-term gains. The truth is we are all to blame, because all of us chase after money, which was never intended as something to want, but only a tool for easier exchange. We should all consider this question if you could choose having all the money or all the food in the world which would you pick?
    A smart person knows the right answer, unfortunately today an awful lot of people would choose the wrong one.

  6. John Santomer

    June 1, 2010 - 11:03 pm

    Dear Jon, I have not removed myself from the same blame nor from the same group of stakeholders that Robert Drescher has noted. But I am taking ownership for the responsibilities which has led us all in the situation…The only difference is that I am still willing and excited to see the realization of everything lean and the sustainability of “kaizen” spirit in its “true” form…I just hope it will not be too late for the rest. You see, its very difficult to “wake up people who are already awake”. Everyone has free will to choose how to greet a wonderful morning with great enthusiasm, smell the flowers and fresh air…which by the way is fast being affected by global warming. And yet all have different approaches to a single day in the calendar. I just hope it will not be too late for everyone concerned to still appreciate that picturesque wonderful mornings…Keep “kaizen” alive, there may yet be hope to see and smell the flowers and sniff a fresh breath of air…idealistically as I may sound. Yes Jon, I am putting everything in questions…“__ ga nakattara dosuru?” 🙂

  7. Arnout Orelio

    June 8, 2010 - 8:25 am

    Hi Jon, very true. I believe it was Deming who said: “20 years of experience often means 1 year of experience done 20 times” So as long as Lean is seen as a project, a tool or the like in stead of a process of continuous learning how to better serve (the client, society, your people) it is fake lean.

  8. Erik

    June 10, 2010 - 7:34 am

    It seems to me that even measuring a lean journey in years is like measuring a rock by it’s personality or doing a dance to describe architecture. It’s a nearly irrelevant metric. It implies that time, and the passage thereof, is in some way correlated with the goal.

  9. Tom

    June 30, 2010 - 9:06 am

    Great post Jon. A lot of folks mistakenly think that “lean” is something you can implement or install like software. I tell people that “lean” is like running a marathon that has no finish line. It may sound a little harsh but it set’s expectations and establishes the magnitude of the culture change that usually has to occur.

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