Lean Does NOT Turn People into Robots


There are lots of comments online, blogs, and Twitter about people complaining that Lean at Starbucks is an attempt to turn people into robots.

Again, that is the furthest thing from truth. Fine, don't believe me. Believe a hospital. Some Starbucks people are saying, “We are a people business, Lean doesn't apply.” Healthcare is the ultimate people business – and Lean applies.

Last night, I was reading the outstanding book The Best Practice: How the New Quality Movement is Transforming Medicine and I saw a passage that summed it up perfectly:

Some doctors feared a kind of robotization of their profession, but [Virginia Mason Medical Center CEO] Kaplan had seen in Japan that, far from treating employees as robots, the Toyota Production System provided each worker with immense power. The system was based on the idea of continuous incremental improvement. Under TPS, there were no silver bullets, no huge sweeping solutions. Rather, there were dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands, and tens of thousands of small improvements day after day after day-continuously-that improved quality. It was not up to management alone to foster ideas for improvement, nor was it the exclusive province of a quality department. It was the job of every worker; and, at Toyota, workers took this very seriously so seriously that employees at Toyota came up with hundreds of thousands of improvement ideas each year-and the majority were adopted.

You can argue and criticize Lean all you want. You might like the way things work today. You might not want to change. It might be easier to just complain and not do anything.

But it's hard to say that Lean can't apply in a people business.

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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. You say Starbucks employees are complaining that Lean is making them work like robots. This begs the question; are all Starbucks EXACTLY the same? Are the managers making all the employees work the same way? Could be management is trying to get them to all work the same, like robots.

    I have not read about Starbucks, so I don't know what's going on with their Lean project. Isn't Lean about presenting a problem to the employees. And then have the employees figure out how to make things better? Isn't Lean all about culture change? Maybe Starbucks is not following the true Lean way.

    On another note, here where I work the atmosphere is very layed back. So Lean is sometimes preceived by the workers as a work harder program. If there is no discipline the start with, Lean can seem like a robot creating plan. No, on second thought. Let me just say it as it is. In certain cultures Lean is used, with employee involvment, to crack the whip.

  2. I tend to think that lean is less applicable in services and that it does cause people to work like robots. That's what standard work is, defined procedures to eliminate the variation in the process (that sounded six sigma'y but lean does it too).

    The problem is that lean workers in manufacturing are working with machines. Machines like to work with machines, people don't. I want the person I'm interacting with to improvise. I'd take the occasional bad experience to get some great experiences (rather than a homogenous "decent" experience consistently).

  3. Jim – if you go back to the WSJ article and the John Shook comments, they are NOT forcing each store to be unique. They are laid out differently and the "standard" process can be revised (must be) by the people who actually do the work.

    Whether the ideas are coming top-down from corporate is hard to say. You're right, as I said in my last blog post the goals and direction must be set top-down, but ideas for improvement should come from the workers.

    If management set a goal:

    1) Zero coffee stockouts
    2) With minimal waste thrown away because it is old

    would each store come up with a good method? What if Store A has a GREAT method and it is shared with the other stores? Would that get resistance like something cooked up in Seattle?

  4. To anon — um, you don't think people in Starbucks work with machines (espresso machines, oven, coffee pots). Different machine, different process.

    Yes, it's different in that they are directly interacting with the customer and working in front of them.

    So use Lean to help provide good interactions and a quality experience for customers.

    Maybe this is a difference between Six Sigma thinking and Lean thinking (not to start that war…):

    A standardized method is NOT permanent. Robots can't make suggestions for improving the current standardized method. People can make improvements and DO in a lean system.

    The idea that "standardized" means "shut your brain at the door" is patently untrue in Toyota or a real lean system.

  5. "Come on down to Anon's Coffee Shop, where you might have a great experience. …Or you might wait a long time for lousy coffee, just depends on who's working at the time."

  6. Saying "lean turns us into robots" is a completely uninformed comment.

    But the uninformed often rule the world.

    The Toyota Chairman taught this — you think that companies treats people like robots?

    How to develop people:
    1)Give him or her the job as their own.
    2)Let them think; let them try.
    3)Help him or her see.
    4)Force reflection.

    You know who treats people like robots?? Stupid western thinking MBA types. I'm sure Starbucks is infected with them.

    The body will reject this new "lean" organ, that's my prediction.

  7. Now, I get it!

    Editing out extraneous movements and redesigning the workspaces to improve Starbucks' efficiency is making 'Lean' look a lot like Taylor's Scientific Management- just without a Schmidt moving iron pigs from pile to railcar under the stopwatch and scrutiny of a boss. All without even a Venti.

  8. One big thing about lean; learning and thinking are central to the discipline. Discipline is not the opposite of enthusiasm; that's an American idea that is false. Working in a lean environment actually makes the work easier and more enjoyable. It is indeed empowering!

  9. Thanks for keeping this conversation going.

    To address a point made by Anon (at least one of the Anons), he says he'd rather have some bad and good experiences. The data overwhelmingly suggest that he's lying. Maybe not him personally, but that people say they like an eclectic experience but in the end when you have one bad experience, you are DONE with that service provider.

    This is why Starbucks put out of business so many local coffee shops. The "locals" (I've done this myself) would sit in Starbucks talking about what a shame it is "Anon's Coffee Shop" is closing down the street, when in fact it was us who put them out of business because we were tired of long waits, leaking cups, and stale coffee.

    On the overall point of the thread here: if lean is done well, it doesn't turn people into robots. It helps remove the trivial so they can focus on the important. Such as, for example, the customer. Is Starbucks doing lean right or wrong? I don't have a clue. We're all using as evidence a story written by a reporter who spent 1/2 a day asking questions about a topic they didn't understand in the first place. Let's not read too much into that.

    Thanks again all, great dialogue, glad people at least are excited to talk about this.

  10. Starbucks obviously needs some operations management help. Take a look at how Johns Hopkins is running their Lean initiative. Absolutely fantastic and the customer feedback shows it. In my eyes, Lean is just as critical in services as it is in manufacturing. To say that Lean breeds "robotic" employees only demonstrates how little Starbuck's management knows about Lean. I'd advise them to get with the program before they get left behind! They can start by learning from someone doing it right…..Johns Hopkins. No robots over there!

  11. William – glad to hear things are good at Hopkins. To be fair to starbucks, we don't know if the wsj only got half the story here. Their writers are not lean experts.

  12. Right, wrong, or indifferent, good to see several good lean punch points applied.

    I applaud Starbucks for giving lean a go. Odd comparison with robots when Mr. Potato head was used to make a valid, simple point.

    I twitted about Starbucks CEO and Hallmark senior leaders getting together. Hallmark culture is wonderfully unique. They have a Starbucks shop inside their HQ.

    Hallmark is 3 years into their lean journey. Be interesting to get those eclectic and creative folks together. Perhaps they can come up with a new word besides “lean”.

    Imagine the “lean” greeting cards we could send to the WSJ?

    Jim Baran
    Value Stream Leadership
    Twitter: LEANVSL

  13. Lean works for all of us, including we creative types who write for a living (and also coach leaders). In its basic form, lean is about serving our customers, getting rid of waste, and adding continual improvements.

    The Barry Wehmiller Companies(www.barry-wehmiller.com) have discovered that lean is incredibly empowering for their employees on and off the job. This company focuses on People, Purpose and Process–with the people intentionally first.

    Liz Guthridge, The LEAN Communicator

  14. Having seen first hand the variation in cost and outcomes freelancing physicians produce I want physicians practicing evidenced based best practice standard work. Yeah there are always exceptions. Giving physicians carte blanche is giving a certain percent permission to practice bad medicine.

  15. Anon – you're right. There is middle ground between carte blanche and unthinking roboticism.

    Best practice in healthcare seems to be:

    1) Here is the standard method
    2) Follow it UNLESS there is a medically justifiable reason to deviate
    3) Improve the standard method with new medical evidence

    The cardiology group in Pennsylvania that standardized elective bypass surgery followed that model:


    Even at Toyota, it's "standard-IZED" work, not "standard work." You can't make everything 100% repeatable. Sometimes the work requires judgment. See "Toyota Talent" for a great description of this and thanks to David Meier for helping me understand this (in person and in his book).

  16. Let's not forget a key element of standard work: It's not a straitjacket, but a way to make abnormal conditions and problems abundantly obvious when they arise. Every cycle of work becomes an experiment. Then we (people, not machines) can respond, innovate and improve.

  17. Here is a must read blog post from the Lean Enterprise Institute's own John Shook — he has coached Starbucks and was mentioned in the WSJ Piece:


  18. […] Of course, the Starbucks VP of Lean, Scott Heydon (who knew they had one), discounts that idea, as does John Shook, pointing out that Lean is about getting ideas from those who do the work. Those of you who visited here with an anti-Lean bias, please read those quotes (if you’re even still reading this). And see this quote about how Toyota engages people. […]


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