L.A.M.E. as Heard on NPR?


Oh no, it seems like a L.A.M.E. (“Lean As Misguidedly Executed”) story on NPR's All Things Considered program. No wonder some people hate the idea of Lean when stories like this appear (“Do You Waste Time Walking To The Printer?“).   Thankfully, the “efficiency expert” who was featured didn't use the L-word, but he did mention 5S and the 8 types of waste… and seemed, at first glance, to lack any use of the “Respect for People” principle.

“Efficiency expert” is such an old-school Fred Taylor / Frank Gilbreth sort of word. In the old Taylorist approach, you had educated managers or engineers hovering over workers, trying to come up with a better way to do the work (as you see pictured to the left, where it even appears to be sexist). In this old approach, there's a separation between thinking and working, between system design and daily execution. Lean is all about engaging the people who do the work, teaching THEM how to make improvements. The guy in that story seems to miss that. Or maybe it's just his company that forces him to operate in that style.

Matt LeBlanc, an efficiency expert at a global shipping company, is a kind of special ops guy. His company drops him into its locations armed with a stopwatch, equations and a mission to save the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars.

An engineer with a stopwatch, a guy from corporate “here to help” (doesn't that make people scurry??), and a cost-cutting mission. That doesn't sound like Lean to me.

He stands and watches people work, watching them unload trucks. It's described as “weird.” Of course it is.

In a Lean approach (and this has been my style in my previous consulting), you teach the people who do the work about Lean concepts and you let THEM figure out improvements that they own. Make their work easier and provide better value to the customer. People can figure this out. You don't need that old-style of efficiency expert.

What happens when the efficiency expert goes away? I bet things go back to the old way, the old methods. The so-called “cost savings” probably dry up and disappear.

Not surprisingly, people don't always like when LeBlanc shows up. They don't like to be told they've been wasting time. They worry he might find that their whole job is unnecessary.

I've been physically threatened in a meeting once by someone because I moved their desk from one side of the room to the other,” he says. The lesson: “You can't just move people's desk, staplers. You have to move people along.”

Not that I'm justifying threats and workplace intimidation, but it's understandable, eh?

Let me be clear about this — you don't go moving people's stuff without involving them. Period. LeBlanc claims he has learned a lesson — is he acting differently now? The story seems to tell it both ways — he's the guy who tells people what to do, yet he understands you need to get people involved. Which is it? I'll admit to similar mistakes earlier in my career… before I fully appreciated the Respect for People principle from Toyota.

The audio talks about the fear of layoffs from productivity improvement — of course, people are afraid of this sort of thing. That's why a lot of Lean organizations have a “no layoffs due to Lean” philosophy. You redeploy people for business growth or career growth – it's the right thing for a business for the long term (as long as sales haven't completely gone into the crapper).

Some of the ideas he expressed make sense. Yes, I *do* put creamer in the mug before coffee when I make it for my wife (I drink my coffee black). Moving printers to reduce walking can be a time saver. But, the employees can figure these things out when you create an environment for improvement of work. When THEY figure it out, they take pride in their improvements. When it's some guy from corporate who tells them what to do, they get pissed off. Go figure.

Another point from the piece:

People like LeBlanc are one reason why things are so cheap. If he reduces labor costs, then the price of MP3 players can come down.

No, no, no. In the Lean approach (and as taught by Toyota), prices are set by the market, by the consumers (in most cases – monopolies and health care are weird exceptions). If you reduce labor cost, that means more profit for the company. You don't base your prices on costs. If you lower your costs below the market, you're giving money away (unless that's your strategy to undercut the market to build market share). Does Apple lower the price of the iPhone if they found manufacturing and supply chain efficiencies? I doubt it! More profit for Apple and Steve Jobs.

p.s. My spice rack is NOT alphabetized, by the way. And I don't have my bathroom toiletries lined up in the order I use them in the morning.

Another thought – the audio gives a little more balanced view of things. The web story makes him sound like a real Taylorist. The audio makes him sound a little more self-aware when you really hear him speak.

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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. This is painful for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I struggle with providing too many answers, being too prescriptive, giving too much direction to improvement teams myself. Still, you need to provide some examples and some training… so sometimes that feels a little L.A.M.E.

    One difference – I’m the manager and I remain on the site offering support and guidance, following up with questions. Not parachuting in, “cutting cost”, and disappearing. My goal is to teach. And it depends on the degree of development of the work group at hand. Some are better prepared for a greater degree of challenge. Getting them prepared is the trick.

    Also, we’ve learned that the starting place is not “Save time” or “Cut cost” but “Make work easier”. It sure leads to more sustained engagement. And it saves time, cuts cost and improves quality.

    An interview with Taiichi Ohno I saw a while ago salved my conscience a little – he made it clear that at the outset he needed to be much more directive and prescriptive: the people couldn’t see the waste.

    My notion now is that “The imperfect improvement that belongs to the people who do the work is the best possible outcome”. How often do the people this efficiency expert worked on change the work back after he’s gone? I’ll bet that guy moved his desk right back. I probably would!

    Refining the role of the teacher in the equation, developing the Socratic approach that helps people find their own answers, is our challenge.

  2. Upon a little more reflection, it *is* possible that this guy, individually, is a good guy doing things the right way, but the media twisted things to fit *their* view of how improvements would get made in a factory. Trying to be fair… but initial reaction was that this was really L.A.M.E.

  3. This “efficiency” thing is akin to practicing lean without a license – definitely L.A.M.E. And while technical malpractice is terrible, it’s not quite as bad as human/behavioral malpractice. This reminds of Michael Hammer (of Re-engineering the Corporation fame…I think I recycled my copy long ago). After some business process re-engineering failures, Hammer shared, “I wasn’t smart enough. I was reflecting my engineering background and was insufficiently appreciative of the human dimension. I’ve learned that’s critical.” (WSJ 11/26/96) Hansei can be a good thing.
    .-= Mark R Hamel ´s last blog ..Ready! Fire! Aim!…Maybe, We Should Have REALLY Simulated First!? =-.

  4. This sort of “drive by” approach to improvement is so decidedly unlean… but then I have the pleasure of working in a true lean culture every day. This story reminds me that, as a lean community, we have so much further to go in terms of getting the mainstream media and by extension, the general public, to have a real understanding and appreciation for the potential of lean.

    This approach is like the cubic zirconia of lean… it looks great, has minimal investment, and gets a lot of quick compliments, but it’s not something that you’ll be proud to leave to your children some day.

    To be fair – the content of this story may be more of a reflection of NPR’s thin understanding of lean than that of the “expert”. It’s entirely possible that the editorial choices left a ton of great lean content on the cutting room floor – the respect for people, the creation of work environments that engage the minds and celebrate the talents of the workforce, reduce stress, create opportunities and innovations, and freely share learning and improvements across boundaries…

    Or maybe this guy is just lame.

  5. As a person who from time to time stands next to people with stopwatch and notebook I feel the need to comment.

    We as a company are not even officially on Lean Journey and we have rather long tradition of using head office efficiency experts whose domain has been to know best method.

    Recently I have started using time studies more as eye opener to show people where the time goes during their day. Most people don’t realize what are time sinks in their workday. Once time sinks are identified then something can be done to remove them and that is domain of line side supervisors and workers.

    Also, standing in one spot for 8 hours straight gives a pretty good picture on overall problems with flow in workstation at hand.

    That being said we also use time studies to identify gaps between same workstation in different plants.

    People are pretty used to time studies so they are not seen as ‘weird’ and I feel myself welcome when I visit our plants.
    .-= Panu Kinnari ´s last blog ..Massaräätälöinnin teemaillat =-.

  6. Panu – thanks for the comment. Time studies are eye opening to staff members and employees… even more powerful is teaching them to do their own time studies. Can you try that even if you’re not in a “lean” environment?

  7. In theory yes, and we have done something similar for short periods of time. But I find it hard to convince line supervisors and their supervisors to detach operators from line as it hurts our key daily metrics. While my salary comes from head office expense and isn’t so readily seen from financial figures.

    Also, union regulations basically forbid time studies from people who are not certified to do them. Though, I doubt that would be an issue in real life, we have pretty good relation with our union representatives.

    And one more thing is that time studies to some are some kind of arcane art that only few chosen people can do. When in the end they only require patience and ‘eye’ for how work breaks down.
    .-= Panu Kinnari ´s last blog ..Massaräätälöinnin teemaillat =-.

  8. What they probably didn’t mention is that this guy is probably a six sigma black-belt. One of the problems I have seen throughout my career with black-belts is that they sometimes fail to build teams with members of the area being improved. They go in with their ‘master’ titles, tell everyone what’s wrong, tell them how to fix it, and in the process make everyone feel like dirt.

    Lean is about respect, and this NPR story completely missed the point. If ther is no respect, there is no Lean.
    .-= George Rathbun ´s last blog ..Open Innovation: Corporate citizenship redefined. =-.


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