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Lean or “L.A.M.E.”?

by Mark Graban on March 21, 2007 · 33 comments

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,” 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 a very lean staff,” meaning “we don’t have enough people to get the job done.”
  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, the “5S” program in the UK that was described as “demeaning.” From the news reports, this didn’t sound very “lean,” 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 understandbly 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:

 Lean or L.A.M.E.? leanLAME: “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.

blog photo Lean or L.A.M.E.? leanAbout LeanBlog.org: Mark Graban is a consultant, author, and speaker in the “lean healthcare” methodology. Mark is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as the new Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. Mark is also the VP of Innovation and Improvement Services for KaiNexus.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 LeanPrinter March 21, 2007 at 7:55 am

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 March 21, 2007 at 9:40 am

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 March 21, 2007 at 10:39 am

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 Robert Drescher April 13, 2010 at 2:51 pm

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 December 9, 2010 at 12:05 pm

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?


6 Mark Graban
December 9, 2010 at 12:48 pm

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?


7 Anna Smith December 9, 2010 at 1:46 pm

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…


8 Mark Graban
December 9, 2010 at 1:51 pm

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:



9 Tony July 9, 2012 at 2:51 am

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.
Tony recently posted..Lean Six SigmaMy Profile


10 Mark Graban
July 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm

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.


11 Matt July 9, 2012 at 3:05 pm

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?


12 Mark Graban
July 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm

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.



13 Matt July 9, 2012 at 4:08 pm

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 :)


14 Mark Graban
July 9, 2012 at 7:28 pm

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.).


15 Matt July 10, 2012 at 11:58 am

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.


16 Mark Graban
July 10, 2012 at 12:01 pm

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.


17 Matt July 10, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Definitely not an acronym, good call ;)

i will look more into Six Sigma as well.



18 Mark Graban
July 10, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Actually, I wouldn’t suggest that… you have your hands full with Lean. Six Sigma adds complexity and overhead that you probably don’t need at this point in your journey.


19 Matt July 10, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Ok, thanks for the information.

Best Regards,



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