Book ReviewsLean

Review of The Lean CEO by Jacob Stoller

By Jon Miller Published on October 22nd, 2015

Lean CEO book

[Full disclosure: Jon Miller was involved in proofreading and providing suggestions to the author Jacob Stoller. Jon was not compensated and has no financial interest in the book.]


Most books about lean management are written by practitioners, consultants or academics so it is refreshing to read a book conceived and written by a professional journalist. The Lean CEO: Leading the Way to World-Class Excellence by Jacob Stoller is the result of in-depth conversations with over 50 individuals who have been expanding the borders of lean thinking both within their organizations and in their wider communities. The Lean CEO explores the state of lean in the world today from the perspective of top executives who are leading the charge, and in the process generates a collection of insights both familiar and new.

Nearly everyone would agree that top management commitment and support is essential in the long-term success of any organizational endeavor, including lean transformation. Using the voices of CEOs from a variety of industries including healthcare, government, manufacturing, software development, non-profits and manufacturing, Stoller tackles the question of “how lean CEOs lead” and why lean organizations outperform non-lean ones. The Lean CEO can be read as an introductory text of what lean is about, but it is not a how-to guide. It will benefit the seasoned lean practitioners by providing a comparative perspective of successful CEOs into leading lean.

The first two chapters set the scene for how lean came to be in the 20th century, and the unusual way in which it was (re)introduced to the West. The author definitively summarizes this history while providing the reader with an introduction in a core set of lean tools, methods and principles. While the content of the first two chapters may be mostly review for all but those who are brand new to lean, it ranks high as a fair and accurate source of lean history when there are many misunderstandings out there about what lean is and where it came from.

Chapters 3 through 13 are organized by various themes such as “putting people first”, “capacity without capital expenditure” and “reducing dependence on the CEO”. These move along briskly, powered by the stories in the words of CEOs who led or continue to lead their organizations through transformation and into excellence. While these chapters as a whole draw a picture of the lean CEO experience, the reader can jump in at any chapter and find meaningful insights, without having to follow a specific storyline in sequence across several chapters. This can also be considered a weakness, as more continuity chapter to chapter could serve to build on themes and drive points home. At times the number of CEO characters and stories being introduced can be overwhelming in its variety. A countermeasure may be reading more slowly and reflecting on each chapter, rather than attempting to breeze through the book.

A lean book full of case studies such as The Lean CEO will typically punctuate each chapter with an explicit review of the lessons, the key teachings and insights of each chapter. Many times these take the form of diagrams, acronyms or n-point plans. This is not the case in The Lean CEO. One the one hand this allows the words of the CEO to stand on their own without interpretation or insertion of the author’s particular agenda. On the other hand, it can feel as though it is up to the reader is to extract key lessons from each chapter. In the concluding chapter the author does offer a nuanced summary. Some may find it useful to read the last chapter first, and then look for these main themes throughout the book.

The author invites the reader to use the book engage in executive-level conversations about big questions such as

  • What makes a CEO an effective leader of a lean transformation?
  • How do lean transformations change companies for the better?
  • What does this mean for your organization?

Whether new to lean or well along the journey, I encourage all lean leaders to pick up this book, read the conclusion and introductory chapters, find the chapters with the most relevant themes, and guide your teams through a discussion of “What does this mean for our organization?”

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