Come on, WSJ, Why Drag “Lean” Into It?


While I was on vacation, the news (the BBC World Service, mainly) focused quite a lot on the BP oil spill in the gulf, including the world's reactions to the problem. While it seems a bit uncouth to criticize our formal British colonialists on the observance of Independence Day (don't say “Happy 5th of July!”), I feel like complaining about a U.S. institution – the Wall St. Journal.

The WSJ often totally gets it wrong about Lean when they are writing about Lean or the Toyota Production System. This time, they manage to drag the word “lean” into the discussion about BP, when it doesn't apply, of course.

The WSJ article from June 29 (“As CEO Hayward Remade BP, Safety, Cost Drives Clashed“) highlights the sad instances where BP and its leadership apparently repeatedly made bad decisions about safety — choosing to be cheap instead of doing the right thing.

Then the WSJ says this:

As investigators were questioning Atlantis' lean operation, top executives were praising it.

OK, well the WSJ clearly wasn't trying to relate BP to Toyota or Lean Manufacturing practices (I'll capitalize it when referring to the formal methodology). Actually, it's not the WSJ's fault here — they are using the colloquial, everyday use of the term lean, which is often used in a way that has nothing to do with Lean Manufacturing.

You have to hope (and assume) that people reading an article like that don't associate BP's bad choices with Lean, especially with Lean Healthcare. Calling BP a “lean operation” — as in understaffed and underspending on safety — has nothing to do with ThedaCare or other “lean operations” in healthcare.

Lean, TPS — real Lean — is a safety-first, quality-first approach. Again, that's why it's so frustrating to see Toyota stumble and struggle as they have.

Is this the WSJ's fault or is it another reason to wring our hands about why TPS was deemed “lean” by Jon Krafcik, Jim Womack, and the MIT research team that produced The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production.

I think we've had some discussion about this before, but does the word “lean” get in the way in your implementation? Lean too often signifies to people things like “cutting to bone” or “not having enough” instead more positive concepts like reducing waste, giving the customer what they want, and having respect for people.

I'm less frustrated with the WSJ than I've been in other cases — In hindsight, I have rabbit ears about hearing the word “lean” in the context of bad safety and poor decision making. Your thoughts?

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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. Lean is often misunderstood for exactly the reason you site. Since I missed the WSJ article, I’ll withhold judgment, but an organization of their caliber should certainly be informed and understand the capital “L” Lean and how it does or doesn’t relate to the spill and Toyota.

    Excellent post Mark. Thanks!

  2. I often wish we had a word other than Lean to describe what we do, but I try to use it as a lesson in what TPS is and isn’t. A productive discussion can result from explaining the differences between lean as cheap, and Lean as continuous improvement.

  3. From Facebook:

    Agree. Term lean has negative connotation.
    It’s also not a biz or management system if only adopted by one department and practiced by a small % of people. How I’ve seen lean practiced could better be described as “brushfire”.

    Was surprised none of notable “Lean-Thinkers” publicly weighed in on the BP problem. Isn’t this a problem worth solving? Lean folks missed a big opportunity.

  4. Hi Mark,

    To create a word that replaces “lean” is beside the point. The problem is the misunderstanding of the use of the word for two fundamental reasons: 1) people who use the word don’t understand what the word means in a management context (usually WSJ journalists, among others) and 2) people in positions of influence who have used it in practice perpetuate the problem described above by using it incorrectly or inappropriately.

    If we used another word/phrase of similar meaning, lets say, “smart manufacturing” we would have the same problems. The reasons for this problem will NEVER go away, simply because of human nature.

  5. Similar situation with use of the term “lean startup” in a Boston Globe article about companies making use of free wi-fi at Starbucks:

    From the article:

    “Some start-ups receive free office space from larger businesses or later-stage start-ups. These businesses can provide an entrepreneur with advice on funding, lawyers, staffing, growth strategies, etc. Further, lean start-ups can avoid one of the biggest challenges faced by any entrepreneur: loneliness.”

    As Eric Ries often writes about, a “lean startup” is one that learns and iterates rapidly, it’s not a “cheap” startup.

    Same problem, slightly different situation.

    @Bryan — I’m sure the WSJ reporter, in this case, was using the everyday use of the word “lean” but it’s still frustrating. I don’t think there was any intention mis-use of lean… one of the problem with such a generic word is that the Lean Manufacturing world can’t claim a monopoly on it.

  6. Mark good to have you back.

    The BP fiasco has been a circus on many levels, what has amazed me though has been the safety angle and the complacency that this, as with Lean implementations can endure when we think we have got it sorted.

    You can never let your guard down in sustaining safety or eliminating waste. Apparently BP’s case, senior execs were visiting the rig on the day of the debacle to celebrate 7 years of accident free, an amazing achievement in this type of environment I’m guessing. However sadly underlying this was a ‘time bomb’ of negligence just waiting for the wrong time to go off. We have to feel for the families of the guys who lost their lives, as well as the aftermath that has devastated so many lives in other ways.

    Surely this is the ultimate in ‘Disrespect for people’ & can in no way be related to “Lean” or Operational Excellence as we call it.

    The WSJ article clearly suggests “lean” unhealthy, anorexic, not “Lean” fighting fit, competitive, strong. An unfortunate juxtaposition of the use of the word which we’ll have to accept given it has been popularised for good & bad.

    Agree, you should give them a break on this one ;-)
    But do stay vigilant, it does none of us any good to redress this type of confusion.

    Kind regards,


  7. You are correct that lean does not mean merely cost cutting to operate from a bare bones, austerity budget. Lean is not an emphasis on reducing the people and costs required to get a job done well. Lean focusses on achieving a mission by making the best possible use of resources given particular sets of variables within the context.

    To arrive at the best and most effective processes, one must use a three-dimensional perspective to focus on 1) the missions that matter most, 2) the resources available to achieve them, and 3) the context that reveals how the resources must be deployed to accomplish each mission.

    To see how this applies to the BP disaster check ow this:

  8. Here is a related article I read over vacation, finally dug up the link, from the International Herald Tribune:

    Talking Business – In 2 Accidents, BP Ignored Omens of Disaster – –

    Such a sad failure to be proactive on safety. Hell, they weren’t even reactive after past problems.

  9. Thanks to @AveusLLC on Twitter for sharing their blog post that links to a Harvard article that makes the same error, equating cheapness and cost-cutting with “lean” (and more directly calling out Toyota, which makes their analysis even more incorrect, equating Toyota and BP):

    HBR link:

    Also, here is Bill Waddell’s take on BP catastrophe:
    Evolving Excellence: Management Trumps Culture Every Time –

  10. We should be a little careful in becoming folks “who doth protest too much”. All kinds of words have taken on new meanings as generations pass. “Gay” when I was growing up meant “happy, cheerful” and the like, but not today in most folks’ vocabulary definition. Since a major purpose of lean is the elimination of waste so more resources are applied to a greater degree in adding value that the customer wants, it’s not a reach to see how lean became a simple descriptiopn and not necessarily a bad one. Obviously in the vernacular waste is seen as fat which can be trimmed off without harm but rather benefit. Now lean practitioners want the resources that become available to be applied in enhancing value (such as more attention to patients in healthcare or better quality, greater customization, etc. in manufactured goods) versus being cut (as that clearly undermines the good that comes from becoming lean and also the ability to continuously improve and have employees involved strongly and without fear). But one can also see how governments under the gun for doing more with less jump at the opportunity to make services better versus worse while also spending less, since they don’t have it to spend in the first place. Process improvement, driven by technology and the internet, have been wonderful in allowing citizens to obtain more services more quickly and often online with far less inconvenience and time spent and with greater accuracy and speed.
    Anyway let’s not become cult-like in discerning who is pure and who is not in practicing Lean and try to embrace the positives of making processes better that help all the stakeholders — still encouraging that more be done and broader efforts be undertaken. In the same vein let’s not automatically jump all over someone who is not truly practicing real lean and rather just employing some of its most popularly known tools (like all the companies we visit that say “we are doing kanban” or “we are becoming lean” (when waste is everywhere such as still using batch and queue but the layout is better based on those spaghetti chart posters or just some components employ cards for supply replenishment). Let’s embrace the positives and not just focus on there being something ill under every rock. It’s wonderful anytime someone improves a process so maybe the organization, company becomes better, more competitive, safer, jobs more secure and satisfying, etc. Too often it seems some want instead to chide them for pretending to be lean, and we all know they could do much more, but it’s great that they have at least tried something — which gives them certainly a better chance of then doing more. In summary, let’s not “doth protest too much.”

  11. Ok, so I had “rabbit ears” about the WSJ referencing lean and BP.

    But today’s article about Apple is worse, since they reference “lean manufacturing.” Why is it that the WSJ always blames inventory shortages on “lean manufacturing”? Apple has never been called a “lean manufacturer” by those in the know, right?

    WSJ link:


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