Lean or “L.A.M.E.”?

Many of the “anti-lean” stories I hear sound like descriptions of situations or methods that I would hardly describe as “Lean.” There are many problems with the word “Lean,” (see one such example) but we’re pretty well stuck with it.

  1. “Lean” is often used in a negative sense that has nothing to do with the Toyota Production System, as in “we have very lean staffing levels,” meaning “we don’t have enough people to get the job done.” That’s not the Lean concept at all. A Lean organization makes sure we have the right number of people to do the work the right way.
  2. There is no official ‘keeper of the lean” to officially bestow the “lean” title on any practice or behavior. We’re free to describe pretty much anything we like as “lean,” the only downside might be getting mocked in the lean community, but that’s not much downside, is it?

For example, this “5S” program in the UK that was described as “demeaning.” From the news reports, this didn’t sound very “Lean,” (in a Toyota sense) in terms of doing anything much to reduce waste or improve things for employees. Does this give “Lean” a bad name or does it give the consultants and the managers a bad name? People tend to blame “Lean.”

When companies use Lean methods to drive layoffs, something most Lean consultants (myself included) say you shouldn’t do since it understandably drains any employee enthusiasm for lean, does this give “Lean” a bad name or that company a bad name? People blame “Lean” and say that “Lean” led to their layoffs.

When this guy got the idea, somewhere, that Gemba walks led to more bureaucracy and paperwork. If that the was the case somewhere (and it shouldn’t be if a Gemba process is implemented properly, would “Lean” get the blame for wasting managers’ time?

We need a phrase that describes these “bad” or misguided attempts at Lean, things that give Lean a bad name.

How about:

LAMELAME: “Lean” As Misguidedly Executed

Lean As Mistakenly Explained?

Can you think of a better phrase?

We need something to describe what bad managers do when they purposely distort or accidentally misunderstand Lean. Maybe this will catch on, or maybe it’s lame.

This way, when we see a “lean horror story,” we can refer to it as the “LAME method” instead of a “Lean method.”

Do you have any “LAME” stories to share for others to learn from?

More “LAME” posts and stories.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please scroll down to post a comment. Click here to be notified about posts via email. Learn more about Mark Graban’s speaking, writing, and consulting.

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an book titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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54 Comments on "Lean or “L.A.M.E.”?"

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  1. Superficial Lean Laboratory Explanation — Lean Blog | December 18, 2009
  2. Lean in Sweden: Tools < Thinking — Lean Blog | January 27, 2010
  3. L.A.M.E. as Heard on NPR — Lean Blog | February 20, 2010
  4. Lean i Hallandsåsen? | Petter om lean | April 21, 2010
  5. No No NO-This is NOT Operational Excellence | Lean Connections | May 7, 2010
  6. Nissan – L.A.M.E. or Lean? « Beyond Lean | July 16, 2010
  7.  | Karabin | February 16, 2011
  8. Appreciating Systems » Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog » Building Adoption of Management Improvement Ideas in Your Organization | May 13, 2011
  9. Appreciating Systems » Can #Lean be helped by Self-Determination Theory and #SolutionFocus? (a @doingwhatworks paper) | May 30, 2011
  10. Appreciating Systems » Hoshin kanri is key to #Lean deployement because it respects people | October 13, 2011
  11. Mise-en-place, 5S, and why tape outlines on the desk are stupid. | | October 19, 2011
  12. L.A.M.E. strikes again, in an office environment | Michel Baudin's Blog | September 13, 2012
  13. Notes and References from my #LKNA13 Talk on Lean Healthcare — Lean Blog | May 1, 2013
  14. My hopes following the Virginia Mason Gemba Walk | Healthcare Quality Improvement | April 8, 2014
  15. The Top 10 Lean and Continuous Improvement Books of All Time | The Lean Book Shop | May 29, 2014
  16. Local Optima | Think Different | July 21, 2014
  17. What is a Lean Leach? Understanding the Two Dimensions of Lean Systems | September 22, 2014
  18. The Failure of Lean: Part 2 (The Lean Consulting Industry) | True North Thinking | June 18, 2015
  19. What Categorises a High Performing Organisation? | Amplifiers | July 9, 2015
  20. So-Called “Just in Time” Retail Staff Scheduling is a Bastardization of Lean | Lean Blog | August 21, 2015
  21. Another Conversation About L.A.M.E. and Lean in Manufacturing and Healthcare | Lean Blog | September 3, 2015
  22. Are Lean and Green Really “Two Sides of the Same Coin?” | Lean Blog | September 18, 2015
  23. Learning Lean | Healthcare Quality Improvement | October 9, 2015
  24. It’s Not #Lean to Have Dysfunctional Efficiency Targets | Lean Blog | November 10, 2015
  25. Forward to 2016 | | December 28, 2015
  26. Some of My Recent KaiNexus Blog Posts: Toyota vs. Google, Kaizen, & Visual Management | Lean Blog | February 13, 2016
  27. What are the 10 Most Read LeanBlog.org Posts of 2016? | Lean Blog | June 30, 2016
  28. Repeating the Same #Lean Mistakes Over and Over? Why? | Lean Blog | October 26, 2016
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  1. LeanPrinter says:

    Since most (if not all) failed attempts to become Lean are due to senior leaderships’s failure to educate, engage, and evolve, how about Lacking Any Management Ethics?

  2. Kevin says:

    I like it. Easier to describe and keep consistent than the “real lean” vs. “fake lean” that we talk about a lot.

    I do think that “distort” or “accidentally misunderstand” is a little narrow. Some leaders (and the previous commentor is right) simply don’t have the capability to understand, they are misinformed, etc.


  3. Dean Bliss says:

    This reminds me of a discussion I heard about yoga, which is not only exercise, but a philosophy. Those who treat it as “exercise” move away to the next thing, while those who embrace the philosophy get the benefit. When yoga “contests” started popping up, it was an indicator that those participating didn’t “get it”. The same can be said of Lean – or, for those who don’t understand, LAME.

  4. Unfortunately most people jump on any bandwagon, I have seen supposed Lean consultants that double as outsourcing experts for China. That rates a lame, why would we expect businesses whose owners and managers only care about now be expected to actually implement lean, not likely, but if they can use it as a short-term fix they will, or at least pretend they did.

    The LAME above is close but not quite Lacking All Morals & Ethics, maybe we can create a set of awards or a reality TV show on Fake Lean.

  5. Anna Smith says:

    Hi Mark,

    This post has been on my mind – I’m trying to figure something out: My almost blind 92-year-old awesome grandmother had hip replacement surgery at a local hospital. She was treated like a Queen, made many friends and felt genuinely cared for.

    Then she transferred to a rehab center. Apparently, the nurses there meet every morning to discuss patients’ progress, new developments, goals and the like. The staff maintains a rigorous schedule, sets challenging goals for each patient and follows-through with specialized training; all processes seem to be optimized and effective.

    But my grandmother does not feel taken care of, she is miserable. Her drinking cup is labeled with her name on it, but she can’t read it. At lunch, a nurse sits with her while she is eating, but she is afraid to eat (and spill food all over her). She is not laughing much and not having a good time like she did at the hospital.

    From an organizational perspective, what went wrong?

    • Mark Graban

      Hi Anna – thanks for your comment. For the sake of context, are either of those organizations using the lean methodology, to your knowledge?

      It sounds like the rehab center might be focusing on the technical and the clinical sides of care, without having as much focus on the caring side of health care, from a holistic standpoint? Are they treating her condition more than treating the person?

      • Anna Smith says:

        Thanks for your reply. I had assumed that the rehab center was trying to be lean, but I just visited their website and they are apparently big on TQM.
        The other, ‘good’ hospital belongs to the Health Promoting Hospitals Network, http://www.euro.who.int/en/what-we-do/health-topics/Health-systems/public-health-services/activities/health-promoting-hospitals-network-hph
        And yes, the rehab center is treating her condition more than the person. They are “missing a soul” (quote my dad).

        Anyway, lean methodology is not used anywhere – so nevermind the question :) Still very interesting, though…

        • Mark Graban

          You might be interested in this post, Anna, of a hospital in The Netherlands that has the right attitude, I think. They have a lot of soul and caring around their lean efforts:


          • Tony says:

            When my 89-year old mother was in hospital last year I was amazed at the difference in attitude between 2 sections of the same hospital. She was unable to stand, walk, or care for herself, yet in one ward it was as if it was a burden for several of the nurses to help her with eating, toileting, etc. Food would be left out of her reach, she would be expected to fend for herself when it came to scalding hot drinks, she was often kept waiting to go to the toilet until it was too late, and her skin was torn on several occasions from removing adhesive dressings. Yet when she had a major stroke and there was no hope for her, she was moved into a specialist stroke unit and the care she received there was extremely loving. The first thing the head nurse said to me when I met her was ‘We do things differently here’. I really have no idea what kind of management principles were in operation in the two departments but I found the difference them extraordinary and inexplicable.

            By the way, this is my first visit to your site and I will be a frequent visitor in the future. I am looking forward especially to listening to all your podcasts. Thank you.

            • Mark Graban

              Thanks for visiting Tony and for that cogent description of the differences between those two units. Everybody deserves the best care possible and that means I hope everyone gets to benefit from that “different/better” approach (often facilitated by Lean) that leads to a better environment for patients and staff.

              I’m sure in that one unit, it was a “burden” because the staff had too much waste to deal with… not because they were bad or inherently uncaring people.

  6. Matt says:

    LEAN has been the buzzword for the last year from management as well as the provincial initiative. I recently took the white belt training and had a pretty good consultant from Oregon I think.

    Anyways, the very first thing Toyota had to do prior to implementation was bring the union and management together. Have real discussions and remove as much “in-fighting” as possible. The next step was for mgmt to cancel meetings and spend “time on the floor” in order to actually understand flow, issues, etc.

    #1 and #2 have not been done, yet there are tons of RPIWs, weeks in training for managers and one day for union staff. Are they missing the very fundamentals of LEAN?

    • Mark Graban

      Thanks for your comment, Matt.

      I’m only being a bit facetious when I ask what a “white belt” is. The whole “belt” business is a Six Sigma invention. So that gives me pause. I guess you got so-called “Lean Six Sigma” or “Lean Sigma” training? Toyota doesn’t do “belts” nor do many organizations that practice Lean/TPS.

      RPIWs are only one part of the Lean equation. Why is the training so skewed toward so much more time for managers?

      Yes, getting people to somewhat set titles aside to work TOGETHER in seeing, understanding, and solving problems a Lean discipline that should be practiced – not just training and not just events.

      The story of NUMMI would probably be a helpful thing to study, since the Toyota plants in the U.S. are non-union. NUMMI was an exception, but Toyota seemed to collaborate and partner with the union pretty well – judged by the results.


      • Matt says:

        Thanks for the quick reply. I guess i is a hybrid system then :) I’m very new to the philosophy. Will finish reading the NUMMI article today.

        I think we don’t have to set titles aside, but certainly the egos that sometimes come with them. We all are working towards common goals that are mutually beneficial, so it would seem an easy task .. lol

        Will be interesting when (or if) the first RPIW happens in IT here, and what sort of ratio of management to workers there will be. Its 1:10 in the workplace.

        Is there supposed to be a Kaizen Office with 20+ staff? I know we have a large organisation, but I do wonder about that too :)

        • Mark Graban

          Is there supposed to be a staff of 20+ in a kaizen office?

          Yes, if you need that many.

          I’m not trying to be difficult, but there’s no magic formula. Having a kaizen office as a central function can be helpful… but it’s probably something that should be ramped up over time. ThedaCare has 20+, but that doesn’t mean you need that many now. The numbers depend on the size of your organization, your lean maturity, etc.

          By the way, I think “setting titles aside” means exactly what you said – leaving egos out of it (and not having the most senior person always getting their way or always being right because they are more senior… or because they are a doc, etc.).

  7. Matt says:

    Its good to challenge, I have no problem with that :)

    I really do hope some good comes from LEAN, as Health Care does seem to always have tremendous waste. Although I think the Shared Services initiative can potentially address much of that.

    Most staff are quite frustrated by the disconnect between the workers and managers. Time spent as peers and “in the trenches” would benefit this organization to the nth degree. This is where I was very impressed with our LEAN consultant. He spoke of cancelling all meeting and experiencing the everyday issues, workflow etc of the staff.

    • Mark Graban

      Yes, closing that gap between workers and managers is an important step in the Lean process.

      My post title aside, it’s not “LEAN” in all caps… I will change that. Lean isn’t an acronym… so it is always puzzling to me why so many people type LEAN when they don’t type SIX SIGMA.

  8. Matt says:

    Definitely not an acronym, good call ;)

    i will look more into Six Sigma as well.


  9. Matt says:

    Ok, thanks for the information.

    Best Regards,


  10. Alan Jackson

    I like this moniker. I suggest using #LAME as a hashtag. LAME is to Lean (LEAN As Misguidedly Executed) as PINO (PRINCE in Name Only) is to PRINCE


  11. Wonderful acronym that brings the message home.

    I suppose it’s all par for the course. Same thing happens with every new idea, but it’s certainly discouraging and makes change much harder when all terms are eventually bastardized.

    I sometimes don’t even talk about lean. Whatever terms the organization is using works fine for me!

    • Mark Graban

      I understand the “whatever term works” approach (some hospitals use branding like “Process Excellence” instead of “Lean”), but one advantage of using a term like “Lean” (or other consistent terminology) is that people can more easily connect their work to the improvement work done by others in their field…

  12. Mark – here’s a true story:

    We were all excited when we received the approval to visit the famous Lean site. All we heard of was how great their moving line is. One Lean executive even expressed his annoyance when we independently wanted to make the contact, as he was treating this particular site as the best kept Lean secret. Some team members were skeptical about the applicability of the concept to their reality – so the visit was incorporated into our Lean transformation plan – with the clear intent to inspire. So here we were, all packed in the bus, joyfully anticipating the experience.

    At the site, the hosts were really welcoming and invited us into a conference room, where they gave us a presentation about the effort and the motivation behind the transformation – and then it was time to go on the shop floor.

    Everything was there: the shadow boards, the ANDON lights and musical signal, the Kanban cards, the dedicated stand-up meeting place with all the indicators posted, the suggestion system and the carts made from easy-to-assemble materials… Our skeptical team members saw how the product was moving while being assembled and how raw materials were brought to the line as kits.

    As we were walking, we were asking a lot of questions that revealed what’s unseen to the eye: this beautiful Lean display was in reality a huge Push line, triggered by the MRP system coordinating all activities, running big batches and failing to complete the product where it needed to be completed, overcrowding the “hospital” off-line area ….

    No wonder that, as it was mentioned in the introductory session, the expected transformation results were not there. Of course, it was “much better than before” … but with equivalent transformational timelines, this one was achieving a small fraction compared to the reference I was giving in my previous post (Wiremold).

    Turns out the inspiration for their genuine effort came from a consultant that used be an employee for an iconic automotive OEM. Nothing wrong there, except that the consultant didn’t live the several-decade transformation the particular OEM went through, but just lived the system once it was well established. What we were seeing was the result of trying to mimic it… just the Lean Form, no Lean Substance.

    • Mark Graban

      Thanks for the story. People forget (or never learn) that Lean / TPS isn’t just about tools and things you can see with your eyes (the practices).

      It’s also about the management system and philosophy… that’s what helps create a Lean culture.

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