What’s Next for Lean?

Whether I am speaking about lean to an audience of one or one hundred if the conversation goes on long enough the question inevitably arises; what’s next for lean? I always manage an answer, typically tying it to the theme of the discussion, speech or intended teaching but never quite giving the same answer. Is this because “what’s next?” keeps changing? Did the last “next” thing already happen between speaking opportunities? Or am I just inconsistent? There may be truth to all three but on deeper reflection I must admit that my answers have sometime been a bit flippant. I don’t think this one is a very important question and in some cases my answers have been designed to shock people into this realization.

What is the future of lean? Here are a few of my past favorites answers to this question:

Toyota circa 1985. This was my standard around the year 2005. In 1985 the TPS was fairly robust, rapidly maturing and supplier development efforts were afoot. Toyota was being stretched but responding vigorously to the rise in the Japanese yen, expansion of sales into the US market and a changeover from Taiichi Ohno’s generation of leaders to the next. The early golden years? Perhaps. It’s interesting that analogous challenges are facing Toyota again today in 2010.

Quality. Some six sigma black belt types jump on this answer in delight, “I knew it! Lean is not about quality!” but in fact my point is that lean started with a quality focus brought first to Japanese companies by Dr. Deming, then was built on a solid foundation of TQC at Toyota, embedded as a continuous improvement culture through QC Circles, with the often neglected jidoka pillar being half of what makes lean work: quality built into every process. What the Japanese call the “QC methodology” we now so lovingly call A3 thinking. The future is the past. Back to basics. But I think LEI has already made this point sufficiently well, no need to linger on this one.

Lean hiring is answer given to a few audiences that seemed to not get the message about the respect for people half of lean. One has to be careful in attaching anything “lean” when it comes to the employment process because there is the unfortunate stigma of job elimination associated with lean. Lean hiring is what Jeffrey Liker and David Meier begin to talk about in Toyota Talent. Lean hiring has little to do with streamlining the recruiting and induction process, though this should of course be done. Lean hiring has to do with having the right kind of lean culture to begin with, having leaders at the highest levels who have risen up through this culture (as opposed to being flown into the board room from other companies), the firm commitment to growing the right kind of people to fit the culture and long-term vision of the company, and the recognition that this requires careful selection and hiring of people. While the know-how for this is in the present, for most companies achieving lean hiring is decades out.

What’s lean today? If we can’t even agree on this…

Lean everywhere is probably the safest answer to “What’s next for lean?” We know have lean dentistry, lean healthcare, lean government, lean accounting, lean banking, lean manufacturing, lean logistics, lean distribution, lean startups, lean supplier development, lean six sigma (ironically not slimmer than six sigma itself, but this is another topic), lean bakeries, lean railroads, lean software design, lean IT, lean product development, lean sales, lean consumption, lean marketing, lean purchasing, lean airlines, lean librarians, lean lawyers and the list goes on. Antarctica and Greenland may be the only major land masses left on earth where there are no active and ongoing lean implementations.

The death of lean. As management fads in the West, suggestion systems are dead. QC circles are dead. TQM is dead. The wrongly named Just in Time movement is dead. Six sigma lives on but in faded glory. Lean’s days, as are all days, numbered. The flip (but not flippant) side of this is that QC circles, TQC(M) and all other half-efforts and past management fads are not dead but merely parts of lean that companies have not yet recognized as integral. The term “lean” deserves to die once it has had its day and has spawned a better, more holistic and timely management model (fad).

Lean ethics. The irony is that lean ethics would not be “lean” and trim version of corporate ethics at all but rather a set of practices and principles far more robust and constraining of current business. In fact lean not wrapped up in a thick layer of ethics is like a nerve cell without its myelin sheath; the message soon gets lost. This is one that I believe in, not a flippant answer at all.

I may be wrong and “What’s next for lean?” may indeed be a very important question. I can’t deny that in the mind of the person asking, it must be important enough to ask. I do appreciate the curiosity to ask this and must respect that individual. If I do find a real answer to this question I won’t hesitate to share it.

4 Comments

  1. Joseph

    August 21, 2010 - 2:11 pm

    Jon.
    I think that the next thing for Lean will be amazing.
    The trade unions and workers will see the light and insist that all of their officials and members are trained in LEAN as a way to protect their members’ jobs.
    The penny will drop that if they wait for owners & managers to use their so called skills to keep them employed then in time all of their members will be out of work.
    When all of the work has been transferred to low wage countries it will be too late. There will be no need for high paid union officials as there will be no workers.
    Their motto will be, ” The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
    We have tried having the revolution from the TOP down and failed. Lets try doing it from the BOTTOM up.

  2. Nancy Kress

    August 23, 2010 - 9:03 am

    There was a recent article in Wall Street Journal titled “The End of Management” by Alan Murray. He writes about the need for a new model to replace the bureaucratic corporate culture. The article says that they haven’t seen the new replacement for the corporation yet. If I were asked what’s next for Lean, the future of Lean will be to replace the practice of management with the practice of improvement.

  3. Ryan

    September 2, 2010 - 8:59 am

    Why do business schools continue to teach management and leadership practices form the industrial revolution? The Wall Street Journal and other experts think there is a better way to lead an organization
    http://bit.ly/dbCPr9

  4. Katheleen Stannard

    November 5, 2010 - 12:11 pm

    First-Class, thanks for sharing this information. Looks great on my iPhone, but on the Blackberry Pearl’s browser your site comes out a little funky.. I’m currently working on Fishbone Diagram project.