Throwback Thursday: Jim Womack on the Term “Lean” & Eric Ries on “Lean Startup”

throwback thursday lean blog

Last Monday, I had the chance to attend a Lean Startup event in Austin where Eric Ries announced the launch of a Kickstarter project for a new book. 10 days ago isn't much of a “throwback,” but bear with me.

He was asked a question from the audience: “Do you wish you had used a different name than Lean Startup to resonate more broadly?”

Before we get to Eric's answer, I thought back to me asking Jim Womack that same question about the term “Lean.” When I worked for LEI back in 2009, I asked Jim casually and he said basically, “It's just a word” or something like that.

But, I got a longer response to this question from Jim back in Podcast #118, in 2011 (which makes it more of a real throwback now).

Jim Womack on the Word “Lean”

Here's the relevant clip, which runs about five minutes. You can also click on Jim's head below to listen :-)  Looking at that author headshot of Jim, it makes me laugh that my baby picture at the top of this post is the similar “author holding their head up” pose that we see so often, including with Jim.

Here's a transcript of Jim's comments, slightly edited for length (but the audio clip is complete):

Well, the word has always been problematic. What word do you pick? The word was a label. Labels are always, well, superficial. We came up with that term in '87 when we needed a name for what we were seeing.

By '87 and certainly by '88, we had some very compelling evidence that Toyota and Honda, who were typically the star performers, Mazda as well did well on our surveys, really were on a different pace from the American and European companies in terms of their ability to get products to market quickly and accurately in terms of their ability to make things with low hours of effort, with low defects, with low inventories, with low CAPEX.

We needed a name for it. This whole situation, as of the mid '80s, was a Japan versus the world thing, which we thought was just a complete misunderstanding of what was going on. It was not about Japan. It was a different management system, which really only Toyota and Honda had fully mastered and Mazda was copying.

What to call the system? You don't call it “Ohnoism” for Taiichi Ohno. “Kenya Nakamuraism” for Nakamura, the guy who invented the chief engineer system at Toyota. Are we going to call it “Toyotaism” when Honda does it, Mazda does it? Are you going to call it “Toyodaism” for Eiji Toyoda and the family?

All of those labels just seemed wrong and yet we needed to call it something. The term “mass production” was out there. I wish we had probably used the term “modern production” or “modern management,” but we weren't quite into postmodern at that point.

We said, “This is a contrast. On every dimension, it's just different. What do we call it?” We had a session at the office at MIT in the big boiler room where I had all the young people who had come out of the industry, came back to MIT to get some additional credentials… [we] were sitting there one afternoon saying, “We got to have a name for this thing. What are we going to call it?” Because we we're getting ready to do some publishing.

It was agreed that we should label it for what it did. I remember holding my marker at the whiteboard and said, “It uses less time to go from concept to launch, less time to go from raw material to customer, and it uses less effort, less hours of engineering to do product development, less hours of human effort in the factory. There's fewer suppliers and they're fewer injuries. Well, actually were. There's less inventory. Well, yeah, there was. There are fewer defects, less defects. By the way, you can make money at lower volume because of the ability to flexibly change over form one product to another. Less, less, less, less, less.”

Then, John got his moment of fame, John Krafcik, by saying, “I've got it. Let's call it Lean.” I remember writing on the blackboard L-E-A-N. Of course, the problem is that Lean rhymes with mean. Lean rhymes with mean. Now, lean also rhymes with green. Hey, I don't know. Maybe there's something there.

The biggest problem with the term is it's about less. Of course, what we meant was you create more value with less of everything. The more value sort of got lost. That's a great shame. What's the word we should have used that in one word captures more value, more customer problem solved, happier customers, better experience, work experience for the people who are creating the value, and then less? More value, better experience, less of everything.

Don't know what that word is. Didn't know it then, don't know it now. We settled on Lean and here we are.”

Eric Ries on the Term “Lean Startup”

Here's a short YouTube of Eric discussing the term “Lean Startup.” I guess you can also click on his head, if you like.

Here is a transcript of Eric's comments:

Eric: My very original blog post… It's still on my blog. You can look it up, where I introduced the concept of Lean Startup. It's a very short post. I did not think this was going to be a thing that would take over my life for the next five years. I was just like, “Hey. I've thinking about a combination of these trends, and I'm pretty sure it should be called Lean Startup, or maybe agile startup.”

I threw just about all kind of ideas, and Lean Startup is the one that stuck. Not a month goes by, that someone doesn't tell me I chose the wrong word. I give out the same reactions like, “Great. You tell me what it should be, and we'll switch to yours. Like no problem.” If someone has a better name for what this should be called, I'm all ears. Let's do it.

But, I haven't found one yet. The thing I like about Lean Startup even though it has problems, is that it really points to the intellectual foundation of Lean manufacturing as the base this is built off of. You have to be very willfully ignorant to not discover that, if you Google Lean Startup for five seconds.

What's cool about that is actually what I'd hoped would happen, but I wasn't sure this would really happen. Is that as we start to go into larger organizations, there's a huge number of people out there that have a proficiency in something like Lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, these earlier generation corporate changes.

We take it so for granted. Of course we live in a massive supply chain where everything is super efficient, and Lean manufacturing rules the day. We take it so for granted that accomplishment that it's hard for us to remember. There was a time when Lean manufacturing was very controversial, and there are still some places where it's quite controversial.

There are allies for us inside enterprises and policy makers. There's all these people that have something in common with us, a set of vocabularies, a set of concepts, and I find it really helpful when I work with companies that have that legacy or that kind of capability.

They'll just say, “Listen. Lean Startup is not something entirely new. It's just new enough.” I don't know if you saw that research recently, there's an academic study that showed that when you position something as too similar because it's not effective, and if it's too radical it's not effective.

It's like a sweet spot for new, but not too new. Lean Startup occupies that zone, because this builds on your traditional strengths. I'm not saying “fire all your Six Sigma black belts.” I'm saying let's adapt the things we're already good at, for a new domain.

It's domain of high uncertainty, and that it's just been really effective. I'll trade some people who think lean is cheap for that, any day. If someone has a better idea you should probably write a blog about it, and a book and we'll follow you. I'm totally serious. I would love for there to be a better idea. Tell me about it…

Womack, Ries

What are your thoughts about these terms and whether they are helpful or if they cause too many problems and get in the way? What would you have proposed in that room at MIT if you had been part of the discussion?

Please leave a comment and join the discussion.

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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. This is a very timely post. Just yesterday my supervisor asked if I could recommend an alternate name for lean. He is presenting our work to a new leader who is having a hard time getting past his association of the word lean with staffing reductions, which is not at all the message we are trying to convey.

    I don’t have a good suggestion yet, but I will be putting some extra thought into it over the next few days.

    I will probably also suggest an alternate approach, which is to do a better job up front of explaining what lean really means.

  2. I’ve been using Continuous Improvement as a label for my work of late. I find it’s inclusive of the various methods (Lean, Six Sigma, TOC, etc.)without either excluding or emphasizing one over another. Not perfect by any means, but it’s working.

  3. That’s a great label and I know you do a good job with making improvement continuous, Dean.

    Unfortunately, too many Lean or Six Sigma efforts are more like sporadic and episodic improvement. The “continuous improvement” label wouldn’t really be very accurate.

    That’s frustrating, since continuous improvement is, of course, one of the two pillars of The Toyota Way. I shake my head when I hear people say, “We’ve been doing Lean for years and now we’re going to implement continuous improvement.” Better late than never? There’s still more “never” than “late” out there, as much as I’ve tried to promote Kaizen or continuous improvement or PDSA or whatever you’d like to call it.

  4. Great post, Mark! Yes, the term Lean has always had a bit of baggage. But no other word has emerged as any better. “Continuous improvement” has too many syllables and lacks punch. It’s accurate, but not handy. When I was writing The Outstanding Organization, my editor and I joked about turning “outstanding” into a noun: “outstandingness.” I still use it tongue in cheek.

    Excellence has run its course and is hard to define. I once joked about writing a book titled, “Let’s Call It George.” Labels are a western convention of convenience; the East isn’t as bothered by concepts that are difficult to label as we are.

    For now, I’m sticking with Lean. But I’m also, as you are, quick to define it so it’s clear what form of Lean I’m referring to.

  5. Hi Mark,

    I found it interesting to go back to John Krafcik’s original article where he introduced “Lean”. He there introduces the dichotomy of “buffered” versus “bufferless” (Lean) systems. I like that way of seeing as well. Maybe will write my own blog post about this as well one day.

    Kind regards, Rob


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