How to Make Oatmeal (or Lean)… Wrong


Is oatmeal good for you? It generally is…. well, unless it isn't. Oatmeal can lower your cholesterol, is full of whole grains, and on its own isn't sweet (it doesn't HAVE to have tons of brown sugar added in).

This New York Times article, “How to Make Oatmeal . . . Wrong” points out the nutritional problems with McDonald's oatmeal and fruit offering. Oatmeal purists argue that what McDonald's is doing isn't really oatmeal…

Which reminds me of some of the discussion that we have with Lean.

The NYT writer's description of the McD's oatmeal isn't kind at all:

Yet in typical McDonald's fashion, the company is doing everything it can to turn oatmeal into yet another bad choice. (Not only that, they've made it more expensive than a double-cheeseburger: $2.38 per serving in New York.) “Cream” (which contains seven ingredients, two of them actual dairy) is automatically added; brown sugar is ostensibly optional, but it's also added routinely unless a customer specifically requests otherwise. There are also diced apples, dried cranberries and raisins, the least processed of the ingredients (even the oatmeal contains seven ingredients, including “natural flavor”).

A more accurate description than “100 percent natural whole-grain oats,” “plump raisins,” “sweet cranberries” and “crisp fresh apples” would be “oats, sugar, sweetened dried fruit, cream and 11 weird ingredients you would never keep in your kitchen.”

What does marginally nutritious “oatmeal” have to do with Lean?

On this blog, I coined the term “L.A.M.E.” – Lean As Misguidedly Executed.

What is “L.A.M.E.”? In a nutshell, it's anything that a company does in the name of Lean that seems to violate generally accepted Lean principles. If a company's managers are forcing standardized work on people, that violates Toyota's lessons – both older Taaichi Ohno writings and modern day Toyota books that say people should write their own standardized work and that standardized work isn't meant to be overly restrictive.

L.A.M.E. would be efforts to speed up work (rather than reducing waste) so that quality suffers. Forcing workers to put tape around their keyboard in a misguided 5S effort is L.A.M.E., not Lean.

The existence of L.A.M.E. doesn't invalidate Lean any more than McDonald's oatmeal means you shouldn't make honest steel-cut healthy oatmeal at home.

What do you think?

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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. Mark,

    My guess is that some McDonalds suits consider themselves to be in competition with Starbucks for the coffee/breakfast market. First, they came up with something that they think will compete with a Starbucks coffee/latte, and then they noticed that Starbucks offers oatmeal. So, they decided to do the same, but applied the “high-fat/high-sugar” McDonalds approach (to get some people hooked on the flavor – not the food – come for the nutrition, stay for the obesity). Maybe that’s an over-processing waste?

    It could be that they’ve discovered that some customers define value as “give me something that looks like it’s good for me, but really isn’t”.


    • From a systems / economics perspective, the NYT blogger raise an interesting point… that McD’s food is “cheap” (to the customer) but the “externalities” (such as the cost of obesity) are borne by society as a whole.

      I’d like to think Lean in a single company does not just shift costs to suppliers or the community. Toyota’s respect for people principle means doing right by other stakeholders, including environmental stewardship (zero landfill plant in TX) and the community. Seems that McDonald’s is happy to shift responsibility and cost to others.

  2. Mark,
    I think there is some psychology at work here that makes this problem especially insiduous. People fell like making the choice to eat oatmeal at McDonald’s is a healthy one. That means that without additional knowledge, they won’t be inclined to change their behavior.
    The same things happens with people who feel like they are making good progress with their improvement efforts, even if they don’t very far along the Lean spectrum. They are also unlikely to change behaviors because they think they are doing well.
    Love the real world examples. Great for getting more buy in. Keep ’em coming…

  3. You make a great point. Much like the oatmeal example, lean is often turned into something that looks like it should on the surface, but applied in a way that is easier to swallow. The problem is that, in the end, it isn’t at all the same thing.

    One example is what I call “meandering continuous improvements”–projects that are implemented in the spirit of continuous improvement (a lean principle), but target discrete issues rather than addressing the broader creation of value. They make things look better locally, but do little to impact the whole…

  4. Mark,
    I love the analogy with oatmeal, something that is supposed to make you “lean” but will only do so when use properly. I also agree with the L.A.M.E. philosophy and that lean will only work properly when a company executes its principles properly. For example, a top argument against lean is that too much emphasis on improvement or the elimination of waste can cause too much stress in the work place. I believe this is lean misguided as if lean strategies were executed properly and waste was reduced, stress would naturally be reduced as well and productivity and efficiency would increase.

  5. This is a great discussion. One word of caution on waste reduction, though. Waste reduction in the proper context is lean; aimless waste reduction creates a culture of L.A.M.E. (to use Mark’s acronym). Shingo cautioned against this; Deming referred to a similar practice as “tampering.”

  6. Dude: make mine steel cut or Irish. Oh, and whatever we call it (lean) make mine balance the human with operational. Next to time you’re in Pittsburgh I’ll make you breakfast.

  7. McDs oatmeal is great! It is as genuine as what my mother made when I was a kid. I’m tired of the thought police telling us what is genuine. It’s not your or any one elses call but mine.

    LAME is when someone seeks to usurp the customers decision right. LEAN is mking a good the is fit for use by the customer not their nanny.

    • @ Bee, it’s your right to buy a high-fat, high-sugar oatmeal. I’m not saying it should be banned. But, people should be informed. It’s your call about what to do with that information.

  8. Definitely an interesting comparison and another good topic on McD’s business tactics.

    I agree with the initial poster, it’s as though McD’s is trying to be the low cost leader competition with Starbucks. Not that Starbucks isn’t guilty of making incredibly high fat, high sugar, high priced options.

    This is not a tactic to cut waste, that’s for sure. Unless their idea of “cutting waste” is adding unnecessary ingredients. Which is backward.

    The sad thing is people will buy this oatmeal, and anything else they’ve delivered as “whole grain” or “heart healthy” in a blind attempt to continue consuming on the cheap.

    Is this really an example of Lean, even misguided Lean? Or simply another example of McD’s and our own misguided consumption habits?

    • Hi Kristen – I don’t think I was clear in making my analogy. I wasn’t saying McDonald’s was using Lean methods.

      Back to S.A.T. days:

      Lean is to healthy, steel-cut good-for-you oatmeal as L.A.M.E. is to McDonald’s oatmeal product

      • Yes, that makes sense.
        Perhaps I’ve had too much artificial sweetener in my coffee today…
        I took it to say that McDonald’s was trying to use Lean and ended up being L.A.M.E. Thus, the misguided practice.

        I do enjoy reading your commentary and analogies with lean in the real world.

        Thanks for the response.

  9. Good thoughts, Mark.

    To me, applying lean is about understanding more Lean Concepts than understanding Lean Tools. To me, that’s the fundamental difference between Lean and L.A.M.E. Simply put, it’s not know-how, it’s know-why. I am far from perfect in my understanding of Lean, but it does seem to me that if you invest time into the behavioral aspects of the know-why, I think that is when you begin to truly see how Lean can be applied anywhere – healthcare, engineering, project management, IT. Yes, the tools (Kanban, Kaizen, 5s, visual management) can be applied anywhere, but just how they work in different settings requires an understanding of why human beings respond so well to genuine Lean.

    Regarding McD’s Oatmeal, I see the same sort of dynamic as that which comes about through “fake lean:” On the surface, it looks like the real thing and might even taste good, so it satisfies the immideiate needs. In the long run, however, it fails to deliver the same benefits.

    • David – YES, you said that better than I did. McDonald’s oatmeal LOOKS like oatmeal but it isn’t as healthy for you as the “real stuff.” Thanks for the better restatement of what I wrote.


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