"Superficial Lean" or "Like Lean"??


In my travels, I see a lot of what you might call “superficial Lean,” where an organization has tried to implement a Lean tool. I won't go as far as to call it “L.A.M.E.” (Lean as Misguidedly Executed) because the acronym seems a bit harsh and mean when people meant well.

The stuff from earlier this week, the “Office 5S” from Kyocera — I'll apply that term because it was a really involved effort that is probably really irritating a lot of people.

Superficial Lean doesn't really hurt anyone… but it seems like it doesn't really help either.

Superficial Lean might be a token attempt at 5S implementation — standardizing workbenches where people do the same work, standardizing supplies, and putting tape down. Probably not as misguided as Kyocera's stuff seemed. But superficial 5S effort might be that one time effort (Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize) that forgets the “Sustain” portion.

What are signs that an organization is not Sustaining?

  • Items are chronically not returned to their marked locations at the end of work — and supervisors aren't correcting the situation, apparently. Jon Miller pointed out that 5S is about “exposing” problems. If problems are being exposed, then shame on the managers for not reacting.
  • Tape outlines don't correspond with where employees really need things. When items have been shifted (running over tape lines) and they're permanently in a “new place” (a “kaizen” improvement?) but the place hasn't been marked — you're not sustaining. Maybe that printer needed to be a few inches over to the left. Would a better “Sustain” environment move the tape? Probably.
  • Beat up, ugly looking tape (particularly on floors). When the 5S tape is really beaten up and ugly, it seems that “Shine” is no longer being followed either. Sometimes, the tape needs to be refreshed but it's not. You need special high-durability vinyl tape for floors (marking trash can locations), not paper tape.

You can spot it pretty easily when 5S was just a one-time exercise, not an ongoing system that's being managed daily. You can do the right things and NOT follow up… Kyocera may have done the wrong things, but they DO follow up. Neither case is ideal.

Since L.A.M.E. is too mean for some cases, how about the acronym “L.A.S.I.” = Lean as Superficially Implemented?? Shoot, that would be pronounced “lazy” — that might be too mean also, but it might be accurate in a way. Think about kanban systems where cards have been made, but the system isn't managed properly…. items stock out and the cards aren't adjusted because average usage increased…. cards are lost and not reprinted (with an effort made to avoid losing more cards). Is this L.A.S.I.? It's probably more a matter of not setting the right management priorities and not allocating time appropriately.

Now, on the other side of “Superficial Lean” is what I call “Like Lean.” I'm more impressed when I stumble across actions, practices, or mindsets that remind me of Lean principles even if the people involved aren't “doing Lean.” I enjoy “Like Lean” better than “Superficial Lean.”

I visited an architecture firm and they showed me some software called BIM, which means Building Information Modeling. It's like 3D CAD/CAM , but for buildings. It also makes me think of Inspector Clouseau and his “bomb” (funny movie clip here), but that's a rambling aside.

BIM drawings require more time up front, but the potential for time savings down the line — waste reduction — are impressive:

  • Single model is used throughout the process, eliminating the need for others to create new drawings to meet their purposes.
  • Reducing extra drawings reduce risk of errors generated
  • Time is saved (fewer handoffs and handoffs bring delays)
  • The building is more likely to be built right the first time (less rework)
  • The building could be built earlier

Reducing defects…. reducing Cycle Time…. now THAT sounds Lean to me. It's a technology solution, yes, and many “Lean purists” supposedly don't like technology. But, the process sounds like it is incredibly streamlined. What might be L.A.M.E. (or BIM.A.M.E, sorry) is if they put all the extra time into BIM and then STILL made additional drawings as was done in the old process and method. This isn't uncommon — making an improvement in one part of the Value Stream that isn't taken advantage of by those upstream or downstream.

More from the Wikipedia page that confirms some of this:

BIM can greatly decrease errors made by design team members and the construction team (Contractors and Subcontractors) by allowing the use of conflict detection where the computer actually informs team members about parts of the building in conflict or clashing, and through detailed computer visualization of each part in relation to the total building. As computers and software become more capable of handling more building information, this will become even more pronounced than it is in current design and construction projects. This error reduction is a great part of cost savings realized by all members of a project. Reduction in time required to complete construction directly contributes to the cost savings numbers as well. It's important to realize that this decrease can only be accomplished if the models are sufficiently developed in the Design Development phase.

BIM is a process which goes far beyond switching to a new software. It requires changes to the definition of traditional architectural phases and more data sharing than most architects and engineers are used to.

Anyway, I liked what I heard. That makes a much better impression than tape on a desk. Remember — what problem is being solved by the tape? What problem is being exposed by the tape?? If the answer to either is “not sure”, then it's time to rethink your 5S activities.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Hi Mark;

    Similar to what BIM does for construction, there is also PLM, Product Lifecycle Management which actually reduces lead time in product development and production engineering at the manufacturing industries.

    Best regards..


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