Why is "What is Lean?" ‘A Simple Question Without An Easy Answer’?

By Jon Miller Updated on June 25th, 2019

Why is “What is Lean?” a ‘simple question without an easy answer?’

First of all, “what is lean?” is not a question whose answer can be qualified as “easy” or “hard” but rather “clear” or “vague” or “right” or “wrong”. Definitions exist. The lean community accepts ambiguity, likes the convenience of defining it one’s own way, or as in the example above merging the general definition with one of a context of continually evolving personal experience. As with karate, the personal understanding of lean may evolve, but the macro definition of a well-established martial art or management system need not be in doubt.

“What is lean?” is not even the right question, out of context. It is like asking “What is dark?” Who is asking? A chocolate connoisseur? A community of astrophysicists? Residents of the Planet of Perpetual Daylight? In the broad context of the TPS-based practice of good management, “what is lean?” is a question asked by people who

  • … find the available definition is inadequate to enable their understanding,
  • …find the available definition to be inconvenient or not fitting within their pet doctrine or solution, or
  • …are new to the subject and are genuinely asking for a straight definition.

To the last, I invite the lean learner to refresh their study of the Toyota Way.

To provide appropriate context, asking “What is lean what?” allows us delve deeper, beyond than the rough-consensus-but-inadequate macro definitions of lean that often have something to do with waste, value streams, perfection and pull-flow. Replace what above with your unique situation, such as “a small family owned bakery” or “a community hospital in Alaska” or “a home-based software developer” to make this a more contextually rich question.
For most things that are worth doing in practical and non-superstitious ways, we establish clear definitions, go about trying these out, understanding them better, putting them into practice, advancing them. This is true for martial arts. There is no ambiguity about “what is a martial art?” or “what is karate?” or “what is kyokushin-ryu” in terms of definitions. We can list characteristics, history and forms (kata) that distinguish it from other martial arts. We can do the same for lean. How one develops one’s own unique style involves the shu-ha-ri of adhere to standard-breakdown and rebuild / set own standard. But we don’t redefine the words “martial art” in this process, much less “karate”. These have simple definitions.
The martial arts analogy in the “A Simple Question…” article is flawed because lean is good management as to karate is to martial arts. The evolving, personal definition of lean would be analogous to a specific school of karate, or ryūha 流派. The evolving, personal or company-specific lean is “Acme Production System” or “Jon’s lean blogging method” (which, for the record, is not a thing). Lean can be made personal, but at that point it should be called by its proper or personal name and not the general category.
What is a martial art –> what is good management?
What is karate –> what is lean?
What is kyokushin (or any school) –> What is the My Company Business System?
Why do terms Six Sigma, TQM, kaizen, TOC have clear and unambiguous definitions, but “lean” resists it, or at least invites new definitions? Here is a conjecture
1) Lean is defined by experts,
2) Virtually all lean experts are self-appointed, and
3) Anyone can define lean.
Some are arguing for, writing books, teaching and promoting a definition of lean or “lean management system” that is a core set of practices including hoshin planning, visual management, leader standard work, daily improvement, value stream alignment, more or less. These are just good management practices, and are in fact, just TQM plus a bit of flow thinking. It is a simple definition. But is it lean? If we took away hoshin planning, would it still be lean? Of if we removed daily improvement? If we include all of these things and yet in practiced improved extremely slowly, such that the organization effectively but profitably remains in batch & queue mode, is it still lean? Is it intent and effort alone that counts, or also results? This is not a hypothetical question. There are TPM award-winning companies who fit this description. Some lean gurus are content to define lean as “learning” and little more. Other lean gurus insist on adherence to a minimum toolset / TPS house. How can this even be a dichotomy?
If the argument in favor of an ambiguous definition is that lean developed over the past century, introduced to the West as the Toyota Production System but still evolving, then we are accepting “lean” not as something that is definite and settled but rather as an adjective, a descriptor such as “good” or “fast” or “cheap”. When we are talking about “lean management” we are saying “a set of the best current practices in management, built up in the 20th century automotive supply chain”. But lean is often capitalized, used as a proper noun, a name for something with a definite identity. Again, I refer the lean learner to the Toyota Way in its best, though dynamic, condition.
A lean thinker is someone who understands that sub-optimization is bad and looks for more nuanced answers to seemingly simple questions. Practicing lean should make us more fact-based, fairer, more objective, more scientific and compassionate, helping to strip us of bias. Lean should help us to see reality. By saying that we can all have our own experience-based definitions of lean, we are opening up to more bias in how we understand and practice lean.
Whatever the causes, there is something that is cognitively jarring about a lean community who seem completely happy to fail to agree on a simple, clear, standard definition and an answer to the question, “What is lean?” Lean requires improvement. Improvement demands standards. Standards demand clarity. Clarity demands removal of ambiguity. Accepting ambiguity in the definition of lean is not lean and the lean community should not accept it.
Why is “What is Lean?” a simple question without an easy answer?’ Probably because we jump to provide an answer before sufficiently understanding the question.

  1. Jens R. Woinowski (leanself.org)

    July 2, 2014 - 1:21 am

    I don’t think that the ambiguity of the term Lean is the root cause here. At least there is the Lean Enterprise Institute by James P. Womack (I’m not affiliated with them). They should have some weight here, since “Lean Management” as a term was coined by Womack, Jones, and Roos. It is just that “Lean” as a brand is not protected, so there is no central authority that enforces it.
    The real issue, in my mind, is that Lean Management is a holistic management approach. Maybe it is the only one. That has two consequences:
    1. There can be no *simple* definition of Lean or Lean Managements.
    2. Understanding it is very difficult, requires a lifetime of experience, and will never be complete.
    3. One can do cherry picking (like “we reduce waste”, “we use A3s”, “we use Kanban”, “we use 5S”) and the result still has some similarity to the full Lean approach.

  2. Tariq Abdelhamid

    August 8, 2014 - 8:03 am

    Jon – I read the last two paragraphs to mean that you are actually for defining lean but in a thoughtful way that captures its essence and spirit. Am I correct in that this is what you mean?

  3. Jon Miller

    October 30, 2014 - 12:10 pm

    Hi Tariq
    Yes, absolutely.

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