Reader Question: Would You Call This a “Lean Burial”?

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I try not to use the word “Lean” as an adjective that means “better.” We see this a lot online, the so-called “Lean boarding pass” or other such things. If “Lean” becomes a synonym for “good” then it doesn't really mean much.

For me, the use of the modifier “Lean” (as in “Lean Hospitals“) means that an organization is using the broader Lean methodology as an improvement model, a management system, and more.

I don't like to use “Lean” as a descriptor that somehow means that all of the waste has been taken out of a process (even Toyota still has waste).

And I especially won't say a department or a company has been “Leaned out” — since what does that even mean? Too often, “leaned out” means just getting rid of people or pushing inventory back on a supplier… and neither of those things are “Lean” in terms of the methodology (or the Toyota Production System).

Question from a Reader

I got this question from a long-time reader… it's an interesting scenario and question:


“My wife and I attended a funeral at our church today. We processed to the cemetery that was a few miles away.

Once inside, the hearse detoured. We gathered under a shade tree across the lane from the grave site. The hearse, a dump truck with the burial vault, and a backhoe came from the other direction while the priest was conducting the “graveside” funeral service.

By the time we got done with the service (which took all of 15 minutes):

  • The hole was dug with the dirt going into the dump truck
  • The vault and casket were inserted into the hole
  • They were covered up with dirt, and
  • Flowers were laid over the new grave.

The vehicles pulled away, and we walked across the access lane, singing a hymn.

While it was efficient, folks were not impressed.

Usually, the priest sprinkles the casket with holy water and throws sand over it before it goes into the vault and into the ground.

I heard that the rationale was that the water table is high, and if they had dug the hole in advance, it would have filled up with water. That might be true on some rainy days, but it was in the 90s, clear, and it hasn't rained for a while.

There are other things more important than getting someone into the ground quickly and efficiently.


I agree with the reader that there's more to life than efficiency. There's more to Lean than efficiency. Be careful (or run away) if somebody tries to tell you something like “Lean is all about efficiency” (or “all about speed” or “all about flow”).

If there were to be such a thing as a “Lean burial,” I'd argue that process would focus primarily on:

Safety: Doing the work in a way that's safe for the workers and the visitors to the cemetery

Quality: The work would be done properly, which includes creating the right experience for the family, loved ones, and others in attendance

You have to, first and foremost, keep the principle of “respect for people” in mind and work accordingly.

When it comes to the pace and timing of work, one of the “eight types of waste” is the waste of “overproduction.” In a manufacturing context, overproduction means making too much of something, or making something earlier than it's needed.

Having the casket in the ground and buried faster than the priest or the family would want seems like “overproduction.” So that's a problem, it seems, in this situation.

You have to understand the needs of the customer — and the needs of other stakeholders, like the priest here.

Faster Isn't Always Better

When I worked for Dell Computer (1999 and 2000), they were famous for being generally able to ship an order to a customer within five days, if it was one PC or thousands.

They had systems that would tell the salespeople and/or the customer if their desired configuration could be shipped in that window or not (based on a pretty accurate view of current parts inventory levels). If you wanted some special video card that was out of stock, you could choose to wait or make substitutions that would allow for the quick shipment.

Dell was measuring their “Ship to Target” performance — how often were they shipping within five days? For many customers, especially those ordering one computer or a small number of them, faster was indeed better. Many PCs were built the same day or the next day after ordering. Many customers would be delighted by beating the delivery promise and getting their product faster.

But, not all customers are the same. The voice of ONE customer might be different than the voice of OTHER customers.

Dell learned that some business customers who had ordered hundreds or thousands of PCs would want to know the EXACT day of arrival. They needed to plan for things like loading docks and personnel to be available to receive the large shipment.

Some customers would complain when the computers arrived faster than promised or faster than expected.

Dell had to learn and adjust… either waiting to build the computers or building them and then holding them (the “waste of inventory”) before shipping them. The risk in not building them immediately is that some needed component would be consumed by other orders, which then would risk the on-time (on-target) delivery of that large order.

Now, Dell was not, at the time, an organization that was trying to utilize broader TPS or Lean Management principles. They were a very different culture (and that's one reason why I quit and left after about two years). It was annoying to me when Dell would be called lower-case-l “lean” because they had low inventory and good flow. Again, that's only one part of what's required for a successful business.

So, anyway, back to the question at hand. I wouldn't use the term “Lean Burial” for what my reader described. Again, in many settings, faster isn't always better.

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