A Sad Story About “Lean” That Wasn’t Really Lean Management At All

Face Palm

In March, I wrote a post titled “Is it Lean's Fault or the Old Management System's?” about how people's complains about Lean are actually often complaints about old management mindsets.

Unfortunately, what's described as “Lean” in an organization is sometimes not a transformation in management thinking… in those cases, it's really just a few new tools (like 5S) layered on top of old philosophies and the old management system.

As Toyota's Jamie Bonini teaches us, Lean is supposed to be about tools, philosophy, and management systems – and that all leads to a new culture.

If it's just new tools and the same old mindsets, I'd call that L.A.M.E. – or Lean As Misguidedly Executed. An example of new tools and old thinking is when people are bullied into following pointless “office 5S” rules (also illustrated in this video I made).

These old mindsets and behaviors that people rightfully complain about include:

  • Top-down decision making forced on others
  • Bullying people
  • Blaming individuals instead of looking at the process
  • Laying off people in response to financial pressures

After some good discussion, the post later attracted a comment from Rebecca, which I'll share below:

I worked in a clinical laboratory of a hospital where a senior administrator started touting the benefits of LEAN. I had never heard of LEAN and I started researching. I became such a believer I took an 8 week Green Belt course and invested a lot of time educating myself on LEAN.

I knew it would take time and given that this was not a facility wide LEAN initiative, it would have limited application but still I forged ahead. My department director had an authoritarian leadership style and I stressed that the management style required for LEAN was very different. To put it bluntly he was totally incapable of change. He would “lecture” staff that they would need to adapt to the coming changes. But he changed nothing.

I suggested we start Huddles which he turned into “Nazi style stand up meetings”. He came to huddles with a sign-up sheet, agenda and a lot of finger wagging. I was sorry I ever made the suggestion. I tried to explain that huddles should be a positive start of the day.

The senior administrator stood in front of the entire staff stating “this is not the flavor of the month – we are committed to LEAN”. Well that lasted for 4 months – she moved on to other flavors. In the end LEAN got a undeserved bad name. I made sure to explain that what we were doing was NOT LEAN. I ended up leaving the job disgusted and bitter. The sad part is that the staff members “got it”. Many were on board and enthusiastic. It was leadership that did not “get it” and dropped the ball.

I learned my lesson but I still believe in LEAN but now understand that it absolutely must start at the top.

I'm glad that Rebecca educated herself to learn the difference between Lean and what was being practiced in her organization. I realize there might be two sides to the story, but what Rebecca reports sounds like a believable situation where leaders thought Lean was just about tools and not about a new way of leading.

Being an authoritarian is not Lean. Lecturing staff and labeling them as being “resistant to change” is not Lean. Using huddles as a forum for yelling and blaming is not Lean.

I replied to Rebecca:

Rebecca – Thanks for sharing your story. I'm really sorry to hear about that. I wonder if the lab director or any of your senior leaders did ANYTHING to educate themselves about Lean. Did they get any education through a class? Did they read my Lean Hospitals book? Did they read the free chapter 1, even? Did they even read a good article from a lab journal about Lean management?

Education doesn't necessarily lead to changed mindsets. Sometimes a little bit of education is dangerous because leaders leap to the conclusion of “Oh, this Lean stuff is simple” then they go about bullying people into using tools, which is, of course, not the point.

I hope you've been able to move on to another organization where they do “get it” and they're willing to work on changing management mindsets.

And she wrote back once more:

The senior administrator had previously worked at a LEAN hospital (I forget which one). Two years prior the Emergency Department of the hospital had a consultant come and she and my director attended a week long education Kaizen event. I also did three 1-hour presentations to staff that they also attended so they did have the background.

The senior administrator has a tendency to micro manage and would get involved in various improvement projects only to move on to stamp out a fire somewhere else. It left people frustrated and the sentiment of “this wont last” was deeply entrenched. I don't think she saw her role in the ever growing lack of involvement among staff members.

The senior admin also asked me to do a LEAN project for the pharmacy department. That was a disaster. She was all over the map with problems and it became clear very quickly there was a political war being waged between managers which prevented any process improvement.

In the end I managed to get some processes improved but it was difficult because the senior admin would constantly shift the direction of the project. She would pop in on Kaizens and completely de rail the process. I tried to do some LEAN training but she kept telling me there was no time for it. I later found out she thought I spent too much time emphasizing LEAN terminology and not getting “people” to change their ways. She never told me about her concerns about LEAN speak. I am not sure how you do 5 S without explaining what 5S stands for??
In addition to all of this I had no authority which also complicated matters.

It's unfortunate that her senior management assigned projects, but didn't manage differently.

What can we do to avoid situations like this?

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleSpurs Win the NBA Title: Systems, Learning, Teamwork, & Leadership
Next articleMy Personal Kaizen on Scheduling Meetings – Fewer Emails and Less Time
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.


    • Half of the problems come from people whose goal is “to implement Lean” instead of looking to develop people and improve the business for the long term.

      People should be solving customer needs, business challenges, and daily problems in the workplace… in an iterative and experimental way.

  1. Her story sounds very similar to the situation I am currently in! It is very difficult to stand up for what right when the leaders view LEAN as a process to integrate into the workplace and not a change for an entire culture.
    Thanks for sharing her story and your responses!!

  2. I know this is off-topic, but what does the acronym ‘LEAN’ mean? Folks are getting it from somewhere; otherwise, I wouldn’t think we’d see it used so often. Yet, I’ve never once seen an explanation of what the four letters signify. Sorry, I just can’t concentrate on anything else when I see that acronym.

    Your point about education not leading to a change in mindset and possibly being dangerous is important. I think some leaders in a state of LAME-induced deliria see classroom training as an opportunity to indoctrinate the masses. Bad stuff.

    Even if the leader is using education appropriately, there are just so many questionable versions of lean training out there that it’s 50/50 on whether they’re getting Lean or LAME.

    • Michael, you are not likely to find what you are looking for as ‘lean’ is a term, not an acronym. The only definition I have found that makes it work as an acronym are not supportive (e.g. at Boeing you often hear that it stands for Less Employees Are Needed).
      I believe lean as a term related to process improvement originated with Womack and Jones in The Machine That Changed The World; ‘lean’ as in nothing excess, no waste.
      LAME, on the other hand, is a very useful acronym to describe poorly managed use of the tools.

      • I’m guessing Michael was being sarcastic about LEAN.

        I’ve blogged about this here – it’s certainly not an acronym and not something to be spelled in all caps.


        A comment on that post says that Jim Womack and the Lean Enterprise Institute spelled it as “LEAN” for a while, but they don’t do that now.

        There is one initiative of theirs, the Lean Education Academic Network, which could properly be spelled as LEAN or L.E.A.N.

        I didn’t feel like editing or nitpicking Rebecca’s use of “LEAN” instead of Lean.

  3. First off, can anyone show me one single hospital that says they failed at Lean? Anyone? Healthcare executives just must be a bunch of miracle workers considering 90% ++ of Lean implementations fail in every other industry (sarcasm). It is just not in the mindset of most healthcare executives that have failed at Lean to admit any type of failure. See the circularity in this?

    OK, mind if I try to top the above stories?

    The Lean implementation at my former hospital took a micromanaging (just send me the audit sheets so I know who to disparage behind their backs) strong-arm approach through unwilling delegates for the first go round. The executive was just too busy to do any of this himself and why would he personally need to change, he reached the pinnacle of success by himself, after all. Phase II: go get some willing delegates who are more interested in polish than substance. Find enough bright points and claim success! Lean is a mile wide and two inches deep but success is success after all.

    • I know hospitals that have killed their Lean initiatives and fired their internal folks… but they’d never go on the record as having “failed” (or if they did, they’d say “Lean didn’t work here”).

      • I think it would be highly beneficial to know these hospital’s stories even from an outsider’s vantage. If there is more to be learned from failure than from success, then these stories should be valuable for many.

        • I got an email today (2nd hand information) that included:

          “[hospital name redacted] has discontinued lean and is eliminating their change agents.”

          Ugh. I wonder if they were even doing it well, anyway.

  4. What can people do to avoid situations like this?

    I think every Lean transformation should start with an independent behavioral based assessment of leadership.

    If leadership balks at this, Lean should be a non-starter because they are simply not ready or able and you could spoil the water for when the time is right.

    People used to talk about doing some pilot projects as proof-of-concept to generate interest in Lean. Some would argue that this works, but I think this approach is rarely successful considering Lean is about cultural change led by senior leaders and these projects can’t demonstrate that or demonstrate leader’s ability to change.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.