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.