Two Cases of Writers Misrepresenting Lean Manufacturing: McDonald’s and Dehumanization?


One of the variations of my acronym L.A.M.E. is “Lean As Misguidedly Explained,” and I recently ran across two fresh instances of this (and, for once, neither is from the Wall Street Journal!).

One example is a news writer who mistakenly equates Lean with the dumbing down of work at McDonald's and the other piece is a book review that claims Lean is “dehumanizing.” Neither could be further from the truth. Both articles show, in a way, the ongoing awareness challenge that we still have about educating the world about how Lean is different than the century-old ideas of Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford.

This International Business Times article about McDonald's confuses Lean with old-fashioned Taylorism. It says:

By having employees do one task, like cooking hamburger patties or warming buns, McDonald's brought lean production to the hamburger, fries, and soft drinks business.

I'm not sure why the writer would equate McDonald's with Toyota-style “lean production.” I don't recall any formal association between McDonald's and Lean, nor do I recall any references to McDonald's having any sort of Lean initiative.

The idea of breaking work down to small, tiny jobs is really more the methodology of Frederick Taylor or Henry Ford. In Lean environments, we typically emphasize cross training and skill building, allowing people to be able to do MORE types of work, rather than being relegated to a single, repetitive task.

When Starbucks presented at the Lean Transformation Summit in March, they described their Lean initiative for the stores and baristas as being the polar opposite of the classic McDonald's approach. McDonald's-ism is all about having “standard operating procedure” binders and manuals dictated by the corporate office. McDonald's-ism is an attempt to “dumb down” the work, so it can be be taught quickly to anybody coming in off the street.

Starbucks, through their Lean program, is not dictating SOPs and methods from Seattle headquarters. Starbucks is using Lean and “Training Within Industry” methods to teach store managers and personnel how to solve problems and how to improve processes. Starbucks isn't wound up about every store having the exact same methods, given that there are differences in the layouts of different stores. Yes, they need some consistency in how drinks are made, but they aren't trying to dictate every little detail of how all the work is done.

Taylorism assumes that workers are stupid, so we have to dumb down the work and dictate how everything is done. Lean assumes that workers are capable and creative, so we teach them how to define and improve their own standardized work. The contrast couldn't be any more clear when you really know what Lean is all about.

The second case is from this review of the book Full Engagement!: Inspire, Motivate, and Bring Out the Best in Your People by Brian Tracy is, I think, an example of the reviewer injecting their own misperception about Lean into the discussion, as he writes:

Add to that the dehumanization of Lean manufacturing and other robotic time- and cost-saving, “leave your brain at the door” measures, it's time that someone did something good for the American worker. Brian Tracy has done exactly that with his new book Full Engagement!

I checked out Brian Tracy's book via Google Books and I can't find any evidence that he wrote about Lean or Toyota, so I assume that the mention of Lean is based on the reviewer's misunderstanding of Lean…. or the reviewer had a bad experience of an organization practicing Taylorism while calling it Lean.

The employee lament of “they tell us to check our brains at the door” is something I've heard from factory production workers and healthcare professionals – a problem that's always attributed to a NON-LEAN workplace environment. Lean is far from dehumanizing, as it engages everybody in “Kaizen” or continuous improvement. It's the traditional workplace that's often and sadly dehumanizing.

Lean is the methodology for creating full engagement in the workplace. In the second revised edition of my book Lean Hospitals, I am able to share some data from a hospital laboratory where employee engagement scores went UP because of Lean management (a pattern we see in many other organizations). Far from “turning the hospital into a factory,” Lean healthcare creates an environment where everybody is working together to improve patient care – a key theme of my second book, Healthcare Kaizen: Engaging Front-Line Staff in Sustainable Improvements.

It doesn't help those of us trying to good things through Lean methods and philosophies to see “lean production” or “lean manufacturing” disparaged in such an unfortunate and inaccurate way.

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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. Hi Mark,
    Excellent post, thank you. I couldn’t agree more.
    As you know, in order to get Lean working in a new organisation, the first thing is to get ALL STAKEHOLDERS engaged. And the “shop floor” workers are stakeholders.
    So, as you say, Lean engenders FULL engagement.

  2. You’re absolutely right, Mark. People in a true lean system are expected to be involved problem solvers, the exact opposite of Taylor’s stopwatch-controlled “Schmidt.”

    I also heard the Starbuck’s presentation. They are teaching managers and associates at each store how to solve problems and improve in ways that are best for that store and process. Thanks for calling out these misrepresentations.

  3. I caught that review too. Give the reviewer, Dan Beaulieu, demerits for buying the argument and recommending the book. And the site proofreader for citing the publisher as AMOCOM instead of AMACOM — unless that was the source of the problem! Maybe it was a parody. All in all, a potpourri of defects.

  4. It is amazing how many people misunderstand the principles of Lean. I can only say when I see comments like that, I realize that people have not experienced Lean and/or are only reading headlines written by people that have not experienced it either? ;)

    From another point of view: Much of this attitude may stem from early engagements of Lean in the 90’s where it was predominately thought only as a waste reduction tool. Lean has evolved and though the original intent was never just a waste reduction tool it was leveraged by many to be just that. Like all things people need to interpret and write things about the current state and get away from preconceived notions.

    In my experience, Lean is an engagement tool and based around subservient leadership. In fact, when I ask this question to people that have implemented Lean; What has been the greatest benefit of Lean? Few say anything except engagement of the workforce.

    • Joe – Yes, if people were exposed to “L.A.M.E.” and cost cutting and layoffs instead of Real Lean, then I could understand their perception of what was incorrectly portrayed as “lean” to them.

      When you say “subservient leadership” – do you mean the more commonly used term “servant leadership?” Because I think those would be two completely different things.

      Subservient = “1. Prepared to obey others unquestioningly.
      2. Less important; subordinate.”

  5. Regrettably true. Far from dictated from above, standard work is best developed by those who perform the work themselves to create relaible and capable processes. The taylorism approach and for that matter McDonald’s misses the boat on the respect for people and standard work front.

  6. Excellent post.This is another example of how lean is often confused with assembly line/fordism and Taylorism. In this case it might be lack of technical knowledge on the writer’s part however I find that this is quite prevalent with the (so called) lean six sigma belt type experts.

    Also, I wonder if this is mostly happening in industries where Lean is still (relatively) new? In health care, I find myself often in meetings where a leader or LSS belt will talk about SOPs and dumbing things down to make the process more productive or work like clockwork. Respect for people an important tenet of lean is often forgotten or lost on many people.

    • I guess I’m a bit confused on the distinction here. I thought poka-yoke was the process of dumbing things down to reduce errors in work? A quick Wikipedia search says the term for the process even started out as “fool-proofing” or “idiot-proofing.”

      I understand the negative connotations with the phrase “dumbing down”, but shouldn’t the actual work be simple and repeatable so that the workers are free to utilize their skills in a more broad-based ways, like improving overall process quality or reducing production time?

      • Conal – thanks for your question. Here’s my take:

        1) I would never call poka yoke “dumbing down” the process. The original term used at Toyota was baka yoke (I think), I term that meant “fool proofing.” The idea is to have mechanical, electronic, or process elements that automatically catch errors, to prevent good people from having a bad day.

        2) Work should be simple and repeatable, but not with the intent of “dumbing it down” so that any person can be brought in off the street to do the work. McDonald’s might want “just any person” while we clearly can’t have Taylor-ist and Ford-ist division of labor to a point where just any person can be brought in to do a nurse or surgeon job by following standardized work.

        3) Again, in the Lean mindset we engage everybody in designing and improving their own work. The intent is to standardize (to the right level of detail) while people still have the professional judgment and latitude to deviate from standardized work when it’s necessary (not because they just didn’t feel like following the standardized method or checklist today). We respect people so we let them lead the process of improving their work (“kaizen”).

        Managers and experts still have a role to play in this, but it’s different than a traditional setting.

  7. In slight defense of McDonald’s, I saw a show about how the McDonald brothers started the first store, and they DID apply many techniques that we would put under the lean umbrella. They were intent on delivering hamburgers as quickly to the customer as possible (because at the time it was what their customers valued), so they laid out the kitchen in tape on their tennis court and tried different configurations. They came up with a need for an extra-long cooktop, which they had custom made, a lazy susan in the middle of the kitchen to transfer the burgers to the different stations (like a work cell), and they invented a ketchup dispenser that applied the perfect amount of ketchup with one trigger pull. Even Roy Crock (sp?) was sucked into their improvements when they asked him for a multiple spindle shake mixer. Roy was so impressed with what the brothers had done, he created the McDonald’s franchise and eventually bought the brothers out. Now, McDonald’s may have lost that spirit of improvement and innovation, but at the beginning, they were definitely in the ballpark.

  8. Guys, this exchange is awesome. I’m learning a lot from everyone. I’ll be able to contribute more to the discussion as I read and implement Lean Hospitals. Thank you.

  9. It can be frustrating to see the bad press with articles founded on assumption and speculation. People only have to look at the core principles where they will discover ‘Respect every individual’ and even without any knowledge could figure out that it couldn’t equal “dumbing down” or “brain removal” etc.

    Slow news days will always equal trash journalism I find..

  10. Great job, Mark, on showcasing a all-too-common problem out there – writers with limited experience contributing to misperceptions about Lean. The Brian Tracy book reviewer’s comment really bugged me. Since it wasn’t 100% clear if the views were solely those of the reviewer or whether Brian shares similar views in his book, I contacted Brian Tracy directly who said: “I never wrote those words.”

    I decided it was important enough to write to the reviewer and just sent this:

    “Hi Dan – I’m a Lean Consultant/Coach. Last week in a post by Mark Graban,, he included a portion of the book review you wrote about Brian Tracy’s new book, in which you said “Add to that the dehumanization of Lean manufacturing and other robotic time- and cost-saving, “leave your brain at the door” measures…”

    My first concern is that real Lean is exactly the opposite of what you described. Respect for people is one of the two key tenets behind the approach. Of course there are companies misapplying Lean, just as there are consultants who misrepresent their expertise and have no business being in business. But, by and large, Lean’s being used to empower workers and create safer and more fulfilling work environments, which ultimately improve overall business results.

    My second concern is that your review was written in a way where the reader could mistake your views about Lean as belonging to Brian. I don’t have the book, but checked with Brian directly and he confirmed he said nothing of the sort in his book.

    I review books as well. We need to be very careful to not misinform due to limited experience and/or incorrect perceptions. And we need have a responsibility to be very clear when the views we espouse are ours and not that the of the book author. I pray you get out there and see what’s being done with Lean that generates the type of positive results that are more the norm than the exception. You have too public a voice to operate under a cloud of misperception.”

    I’ll post an update when/if I hear back from the reviewer.


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