“L.A.M.E.” in the News; These Three Articles Get Lean Wrong


LAMEAs the creator of the admittedly awkward L.A.M.E. acronym (meaning Lean As Mistakenly Explained or Lean As Misguidedly Executed), one burden is that I often get emails tipping me off to L.A.M.E. sightings.

In a nutshell, it's L.A.M.E. when a company does something awful that's not at all in line with accepted Lean or “Toyota Production System” principles. Or, it's L.A.M.E. of the other form when a writer misunderstands Lean (or intentionally misrepresents it) and writes something off base.

Today, I have three L.A.M.E. sightings from around the world… (somebody please make me a better graphic!!)  If you're not a regular reader, see my  “What is Lean?” page  as a starting point or the  14 principles of The Toyota Way.

Lean (or L.A.M.E.) in Knowledge Work

First off is the most minor and most easily refuted (hat tip to Michel Baudin): “Lean vs. growth” (blog post).

The blogger, Luke Rumley, unfortunately uses Seth Godin's unfair and insulting “factory thinking” idea (which I refuted earlier here) to assume that factories are awful, stifling, inhumane places.

It's unclear what Rumley bases this statement on:

The lean manufacturing model, when applied to knowledge work, is a race to the bottom where humans are reduced to robots and creative output to widgets. The work is process-mapped to death, and management demands “faster, better, cheaper.” The concern is not for the experience of the end customer or the growth of the company, but rather “what can the customer live without so that we can save more money?”

I responded in a blog comment, as did Michel.

If a company is doing things in the name of Lean that 1) reduce people to robots and 2) don't focus on the customer, then that's clearly L.A.M.E. I don't know if Rumley is working on a company with L.A.M.E. practices or if he's just pontificating. Considering the way Toyota and other Lean factories (and hospitals) engage everybody in problem solving and continuous improvement, not even Lean factories reduce workers to robots, it's silly to think Lean in an office setting would be that way. You get L.A.M.E. when managers who don't respect workers (who already think of them as “office drones”) get a hold of Lean tools…

As Toyota's Taiichi Ohno, a creator of the Toyota Production System, said:

“Why not make the work easier and more interesting so that people do not have to sweat? The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people's creativity. People don't go to Toyota to ‘work' they go there to ‘think'.”

Truly Lean organizations think about how they can best meet customer needs and add MORE value to customers or patients. The key to Lean is reducing waste (like quality defects or unnecessary costs) while delivering the most value (the things customers want and are willing to pay for). It's just good business sense – and it's “Lean.”

Lean (or L.A.M.E.) in Indian Car Factories

This article from Forbes India caught my eye: “A Lean Production System is Bad for Workers.”

Considering great Lean organizations not only engage workers and their brains (ala the “Thinking Production System” at Toyota) but also work hard to improve worker safety and job security, it's hard to see how Lean is bad for workers.

A professor from Delhi, Annavajhula J C Bose, visiting some Indian factories that probably told him they were “doing Lean” when they are actually L.A.M.E.

From the article, L.A.M.E. includes:

…the human mind goes through severe stress when it has to do the same task over and over again for more than eight hours a day and for over 350 days a year. Repetitive function, along with a punishing work environment and ridiculously low wages, saps a worker mentally and physically.

Lean environments have MORE job rotation and cross training than traditionally managed factories. This is better for quality, job variety, and ergonomics. You don't do the same thing over and over for eight hours in a Lean factory. That's what happens in sweatshop Foxconn factories that make Apple products (and similar things happen for other electronics “makers” like Samsung).

About Foxconn/Apple (from a reporter who got a job as a worker):

By my own calculations, I have to mark five iPhone plates every minute, at least. For every 10 hours, I have to accomplish 3,000 iPhone 5 back plates.

That's not Lean, it's inhumane (as are other practices in the plant).

From this report about the Indian plants:

If a worker's task is to add a brake and pedal, then that's what you do all day, with 8-10 bolts in every car, car after car, 40 seconds per car. The result is a bit like a dance move, the same move, non-stop for eight hours.

Again, L.A.M.E. As are the claims of not being able to take bathroom breaks, drink water, or go home if your father dies.

Anyway, back to the India article:

A case in point is Maruti Suzuki. At the carmaker's Gurgaon plant, the number of contract workers increased from about 40 percent of the workforce in 1983 to 70 percent (4,000) in 2007.

Yes, Toyota uses some contract workers – so they can flex production without having to lay off permanent workers, but it's nowhere near 70% temps. 70% temporary workers is L.A.M.E., not Lean.


  • Training is poor (L.A.M.E.)
  • Workers aren't fully paid for overtime (that would be illegal here)

Workers should rise up and strike or protest when conditions are that bad.

Claptrap about “Lean” in Education

Hat tip to Karthik Chandramouli for pointing out this piece: “Lean Production: What's Really Hurting Public Education” (Jacobin).

I'm not aware of Lean really being applied that much in the classroom. My hometown district has some Lean improvement efforts related to support areas, but is Lean really reaching the classroom the way it's helping in healthcare? Is Lean (or L.A.M.E. being used in Chicago, where the teachers went on strike this week?) I know Lean isn't being used in Detroit, mentioned in the article (my mom is a recently retired public school teacher there).

The Jacobin article, by Will Johnson, cites a leftist professor's research and makes the same arguments that socialist and communist groups make – that Lean is just a tool for the company owners to better exploit labor. I agree that workers of the world should unite – against L.A.M.E.

From Jacobin:

The business model of education reform is an extension of a process called lean production that transformed the U.S. private sector in the 1980s and 90s. In education, just as in heavy manufacturing, the greatest damage done by lean production is not done at the bargaining table, but in the destruction of teachers' working (and students' learning) conditions.

I don't think the modern education reform movement is an extension of Lean. If anything, it's the opposite.

Case in point – much of Lean is based on the philosophy of W. Edwards Deming who was against annual performance reviews and ranking of workers. Modern education reform LOVES this practice, using standardized test scores (something that I think is wrongheaded, as do other Deming students).

The writer says:

My first two years teaching in New York City, I worked at an exemplary “lean” high school.

Is there any evidence that NYC schools are really trying to use “Lean” (or L.A.M.E.?) By “lean,” he might mean understaffed, but that's L.A.M.E.

The writer complains about the “team concept”:

The team concept is a critical component of lean production. In lean workplaces, labor journalist Jane Slaughter writes, worker teams are designed to enlist workers “in speeding up their own jobs… It is no longer enough for workers to come to work and do their jobs; they need to become ‘partners in production.'”

Lean isn't about “speeding up the work.” It's about improving productivity and quality by making work easier… if that means you can build more cars with the same effort, then great (if customers are willing to buy them). A Lean hospital can see more patients in the emergency department each hour, but without cutting corners and spending MORE time with patients (I know this seems contradictory, but when doctors and nurses aren't running around looking for meds and test results, you can actually provide more patient care). I don't know if a Lean education environment could provide MORE education, but I guess that would be the idea. Teachers would be LISTENED to in a Lean environment.

In a lean factory, however, supervisors speed up the production process until a worker drops a widget, loses a finger, or has a nervous breakdown. Such breakdowns are viewed as a positive because they allow management to identify weak links in the chain of production.

Speeding up until a worker loses a finger? Give me a break. That's not Lean, that's L.A.M.E.

Before tracking the flow of value, however, managers must, as lean production experts James Womack and Daniel Jones write, “specify value.” In lean schools, value is “specified” as test scores.

What the writer misses is the Womack and Jones idea is that “value” is specified by the customer. I'm not sure parents really define test scores as the end goal – they want educated, well-rounded kids who can do well in society.

As lean management guru Bob Emiliani puts it, “The final element of… evolving human resource practice was… an annual forced ranking of all associates.”

This is a distortion. Bob Emiliani is the greatest advocate for workers and the “respect for people” principle. Emiliani told me yesterday that he was writing about the practices of Wiremold… not describing the Lean ideal.

Public humiliation is certainly useful for lean managers who seek to place constant pressure on their employees so that, as Womack and Jones write, they can “do more and more with less and less.”

Public humiliation is what the old school GM managers did when I worked there in 1995. The new “Lean” plant manager (one of the original NUMMI guys) didn't believe that publicly castigating everybody would lead to better quality and productivity. Public humiliation and verbal abuse isn't Lean and it's not what Womack and Jones advocate.

Anyway, this blog post is long enough… there's a lot of claptrap in that article. Maybe it's just a shot across the bow to prevent education leaders from embracing “Lean” in the way it's supposed to be – supportive and respectful of everybody involved – the Toyota “respect for people” principle. As I tweeted, “This article is bullshit layered on top of horsepucky.” Not the most logical argument, but I think it's true. The Jacobin piece doesn't allow comments… so this post is it. They do accept letters to the editor, if somebody wants to take that on.

For my regular readers, I'm preaching to the choir, I'm sure. For those who are new to Lean… if you've made it this far, please go visit a Toyota facility and talk to the people there about Lean. Read a book written about Toyota – or these great books that illustrate that Lean is good for workers, customers (patients), and organizations:

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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. Awesome…..acronym…L.A.M.E. – I must have missed that blog post, or had too much on my mind to remember that I already saw it.

    I have seen multiple L.A.M.E. examples in healthcare where they say we are doing Lean and you walk thru and you maybe see some 5S examples but they think they have done, had Lean done to them or are done with Lean and they strangely didn’t see sustained results.

    All I hope is that the L.A.M.E one’s don’t get in the way of those that are making a true difference and utilizing Lean to improve their work and their workplace.

    • Great example of “L.A.M.E.”, Jamie — the use of one limited Lean tool and calling that Lean.

      So, if the hospital did 5S, I’d ask what the results and benefits were: improved patient care, lower staff turnover, lower inventory cost, shorter length of stay, etc. The tool is just a method for solving a problem and a method that should lead to balanced results, in the long term, for all of the organization’s stakeholders.

      [/Preaching to the Choir]

  2. Geez, Mark, the perpetuation of urban lean legend continues. Is it because the reporters are just grasping at what has been the easiest target with the least resistance?

    And you really don’t have to go to Japan to see a true reflection of Lean, continuous improvement. There are Toyota plants in the US and there are healthcare organizations that would really welcome and encourage a visit. They benefit from ‘fresh eyes’ visiting and of course asking ‘why’ which helps them keep their own continuous improvement flowing.

    • Not all L.A.M.E. is urban legend. It does exist in some companies out there (like the company that somehow thought “office lean” involved telling people to NOT put sweaters on the backs of their chairs):


      Office tyranny like that does nothing to help the customer – in fact, it alienates employees, which is bad for the customer.

      So, L.A.M.E. is either:

      1) Reports of real practices, bad ones
      2) Reporters misunderstanding and writing about it badly (focusing on one aspect, like desk cleanliness, and missing the bigger business issues
      3) Writers with a bone to pick against companies

      Jacobin Mag is a self-described “leftist” publication, so like the socialist and communist publications, they are just looking to demonize business people, it seems. It’s a concerted effort to say “companies are terrible and evil” usually followed with a “so, you should unionize” pitch.

      You’re right — I never said you had to go to Japan to see a great, respectful Lean company. There is probably one in your backyard.

    • Another thought – seeing L.A.M.E. and criticizing Lean is like a patient who is harmed by a quack “doctor” then saying all of medicine and all physicians are bad.

      L.A.M.E. is often “Lean quackery,” if I can coin that phrase.

  3. Many companies use the term “Lean” to mean doing more with less. They forget the part about taking waste out of the process so, unfortunately, the result is people working harder. What we really want is to do more with less by working smarter and using the talents and creativity of all our people to enable that to happen.

    • I can see where the phrase “doing more with less” scares people — less people meaning layoffs.

      Great Lean CEOs like Art Byrne (I’m releasing a podcast with him next week) make “no layoffs due to Lean” commitments (as do many healthcare CEOs like Dean Gruner and others).

      Byrne also talked about Lean as a growth strategy. You can protect jobs (and create more job security) by increasing production with the same number of people… but as you said, Al, if you’ve eliminated waste and made work easier, then that’s OK.

      If the iPhone line is ratcheting the production rate from one every four seconds to one every three seconds, then that’s something horrible (and not very funny) out of a Charlie Chaplain movie, I think we’d all agree.

  4. This is so exhausting. Mark, I’m glad you have the willpower and stamina to keep refuting mistaken explanations and pointing out misguided executions. I don’t. It gives me dumb-head just reading the three examples you give.

    I have to say that while Lean continues to prove itself to me over and over again as an amazingly effective methodology/philosophy, the word ‘lean’ has only been problematic. Not sure if this is a dip we need to push through or a cul-de-sac needing a pivot (apologies for the Seth Godin metaphors).

  5. Hi Mark

    In theses case we see three reasons that LEAN ends up failing, in the first case tools are applied without any thought or real cultural change to back them up. What the writer and many people do not get is that most of the LEAN tools are not new in fact many have been around for centuries (the one exception is really SMED which Shingo spent a great deal of effort on). The cultural part of LEAN respects people whether they work, in a support role, on a line are a supplier, or a customer. LEAN goes to eliminating waste which allows for; lower costs to the customer, higher margins for producers and suppliers, and better pay for all the workers. You cannot increase your employees wages if you can’t make money at the market price for a product.

    The example of manufacturing in India and China is not an example of LEAN being applied it is an example of old guard western and communist manufacturing that was about nothing other than numbers. Most true LEAN organizations place one of their highest priorities on improving safety and conditions for their workers, because as anyone with a brain knows tried and injuried workers are far less productive and quality falls as well. Naturally the piece comes from a socialist and communist rag, anyone ever seen a more dehumanizing system than those two I would like to see it.

    Could LEAN be applied in education the answer is that it could, but doing wouldn’t result in teachers having less time per student, it would result in creating improvements that allowed teacher to spend more time with their students and less doing all the other administratively required waste that ties up much of their day. Lean would also identify all those annoying government related and imposed crap that wastes musch of the funds set aside for education. Most of that crap has been imposed on teachers by administrations justifying their existence whether they are local broads, state/provincial departments(or ministries), or federal agencies/departments; the fact is all these none teaching positions add up to numbers greater than the teachers we have doing actual work, andf hlf of the work load teachers have to deal with constantly was created for no other reason than to keep these administrators employed.

    As to how iPhones get built, I wonder how many of those left wing writers knocking LEAN carry around those Chinese made iPhones, personally I use a Korean made phone from a company that uses LEAN, by the way that Korean firm today manages to pay its employees wage rates that match North American wages, something they can only do because them and their employees work together to do better and improve constantly.

    How come none of these guys like to discuss many of Korea’s business, their successful ones use LEAN and still manage to increase their workers pay while cutting costs and improving the value they offer through their products. LEAN can and will work if it is done properly and that includes cultural changes that start with showing respect for your workforce.

  6. Mark,

    I am thinking of advocating ‘Missing Digits’ as a new KPI, but can’t decide how to set it up. Is it better to count the total number of missing fingers, or the percent of the team with missing fingers.
    And do you think thumbs should be weighted?

    Your thoughts…

  7. […] “L.A.M.E.” in the News; These Three Articles Get Lean Wrong by Mark Graban – “Considering the way Toyota and other Lean factories (and hospitals) engage everybody in problem solving and continuous improvement, not even Lean factories reduce workers to robots, it’s silly to think Lean in an office setting would be that way. You get L.A.M.E. when managers who don’t respect workers (who already think of them as “office drones”) get a hold of Lean tools…” […]

  8. Mark – Great article. The LAME’s of this world must have insulated themselves from the mountains of evidence about the impact of Lean thinking and work processes on improving the quality of life of workers, increasing productivity, improving patient care, increasing customer satisfaction, etc. That said, IMHO, more dangerous even than these troglodytes are people who see Lean as a quick fix that can be accomplished by a “let’s do 5S on Line 4” or “let’s try some Kanban” or “how about doing a Value Stream Map in our warehouse” approach, blissfully unaware of the fact that none of tools of Lean stick without a basic change in the culture of the organization. Lean has to be the cake. If it’s seen as the icing on the cake, it will fail.


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