One Place Lean Probably Doesn’t Apply


I'm in New Orleans, presenting this morning at a medical laboratory industry conference, giving a talk about how Lean isn't just a set of tools or a cost-cutting methodology — it's a management system, a culture, and (maybe most importantly) a way of developing employees and leaders in your organization.

I should probably be writing about that topic… and I'll write a full summary of my presentation for the blog (and will touch on this briefly later in the post), but I had something more important I discovered yesterday when I arrived and had some free time:


Or more accurately:


I walked to the famous Cafe Du Monde and decided to ruin my dinner by trying their famous beignets that I had only seen on TV.

Here's what was delivered to me, an iced cafe au lait and three beignets covered in powdered sugar.

Here's a shot of me stuffing my face:

Now I'm not blogging about this to just brag about eating dessert a few hours before dinner.

After the first beignet, my mind started wandering… man, that's a lot of powdered sugar…. it's all over the floor (at first, it looks like bird droppings, unfortunately):

At first, my operational and Lean brain kicked in and I thought, “Wow, when you take a bite, the powdered sugar flies EVERYWHERE. There's way more powdered sugar on there than necessary, that's a waste of money.”

Now I'm normally one to think “Lean applies everywhere” — whether it's a factory, a hospital, or even Starbucks.

But I was taking in the music being played on the street, the tastes, the smells, and the smiles all around me.

I finished off the third beignet (without a tinge of bad-eating guilt) and was left with this pile of powdered sugar — partly because I had knocked a lot of it off, intentionally, to keep my clothes somewhat sugar-free.

Yes, that extra sugar is probably technically “waste” as we would call it in the Lean world. But, it's part of the whole experience… everyone walks away with the tales of sugar falling all over them… in this context, it's probably “value,” that extra sugar. At least it was to THIS customer.

So in my sugar high, I thought about the presentation for Wednesday morning… hoping to inspire the audience that PEOPLE DEVELOPMENT is at the core of these different Toyota diagrams of their production system for a reason.

If a factory (Toyota) can say their job is “Building people before building cars,” shouldn't a hospital say their goal is “Building people before caring for patients” ???

Ultimately, the only thing that can distinguish an organization is it's people. In many industries, we can all buy the same equipment and arrange it in the same physical process. When I was at GM Powertrain in the mid '90s, we had the same engine block machining equipment as our competitors, laid out basically the same way… and we had HALF the productivity and worse quality.

This wasn't because GM started with a bunch of dummies, compared to Toyota. Both companies pretty much hired from the same labor pool originally. Toyota people in Kentucky weren't inherently smarter than GM people in Michigan. Toyota developed the problem solving and continuous improvement capabilities of their people, while GM asked people to “check their brain at the door” (either implicitly or explicitly).

I hear the same thing in many hospitals, sadly, that highly skilled employees are told to just do their jobs as they are told instead of participating in process improvement. If your hospital can buy the same equipment, put in spaces designed by the same architects, what is your distinguishing characteristic? Your people.

Toyota's website says:

“Every Toyota team member is empowered with the ability to improve their work environment. This includes everything from quality and safety to the environment and productivity. Improvements and suggestions by team members are the cornerstone of Toyota's success.”

More on this to come… but, as many others in the Lean world, I'm convinced that Lean (true Lean, not fake Lean) is a people story… the companies and hospitals that do more to help their people grow and develop will be the winners. Just look at GM (Government Motors) vs. Toyota today, 15 years later….

What does your Lean organization do to develop people? Do you think the extra sugar is waste or value?

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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. Value as perceived by the customer!

    Cafe du Monde used to have a long line outside the restaurant just to get a table in the morning, generally some kind of wait the rest of the day.

    The last time I was there, a few months post Katrina, we were there late at night with no crowd at all. NOLA was pretty sureal in those days. I’m curious what it’s like now, how it’s recovered, or not.

  2. I vote for sugar as part of the experience, just like the paper napkins that end up on the floor in a Spanish tapas bar are part of the experience. Yes, cloth napkins would be less wasteful, but the paper strewn on the floor is part of the ambience — and a sign that the restaurant is popular.

  3. How do you pronounce beignet? At first I thought it was the name of a conservative, stodgy ISP from the Midwest. (…and 5 free email accounts for $10.95 per month from beige-net dot com…)

  4. Dang! Those look good!

    I think you have touched on something here that is a major misconception in lean: the concept of excess, i.e., zero inventory, zero defects etc. I have seen people bleed off inventories to literally ‘zero’ inventory levels in order to satisfy the lean ‘gurus’. In practical terms, zero inventory really means, zero excess inventory, or to put it in bone head simple terms: the right amount of inventory at the right time. In your yummy example, the right amount of sugar just happens to be a lot of sugar. Even in the example of the beignet, there is such a thing as excess or too little sugar. With this dessert, what is normally considered a lot of sugar, is actually just the right amount.

  5. A bit of an aside…

    Re: “Building people before building cars”

    I’ve heard this version before but I always thought it was “Making cars is about making people” which I actually like better. I don’t want to imply that “building people” is a one-off thing that you finish and then go on to the “real work” of building cars, caring for patients, etc.

  6. Jason – the “building people before building cars” is referenced in Toyota Culture. Doing a google search for your wording doesn’t come up with anything.

    It’s the same concept. I could argue that “making people” sounds like something inappropriately sexual ;-)

    Making cars happens everyday, as does making people (or developing them, or building them)… it’s all a continuous process (we don’t just build or make cars one day).


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