"How vain, without the merit, is the name," wrote Homer. He was writing about Hector – trashing him for claiming epic accomplishments, without actually having done much. It strikes me as somewhat similar to the great number of managers and self-proclaimed lean experts who have not actually accomplished anything to speak of, but are nonetheless laying claim to the title of lean authorities.
The term 'lean' has become so thoroughly trashed that several of the leading lean thinkers I know are giving serious thought to conjuring up some new buzzword to denote what lean is really all about. The field is so completely saturated with people who have had a little bit of lean experience and proclaimed themselves authorities as a result, that it is increasingly hard for the true lean message to get through. All too often I will go into a company in trouble only to hear that (1) they are already lean so they need something else to save them, or (2) they implemented lean a few years back and it did not work for them, so they need something else. In both cases, what they did was nothing remotely close to the essence of lean – but try telling that to the manager they hired from some lean institution such as GM, Boeing or GE who is the one telling you that the troubled company is already lean. Try telling it to a CEO who has laid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to a consultant who has given them nothing but basic value stream mapping skills in return.
Big consulting firms have built extensive practices around kaizen, alone – the "Kaizen Kowboys" my friend Adam Zak calls them - and will work with clients for years doing nothing more than leading kaizen events and drawing value stream maps. When one of you tries to tell your management that lean is more than that, your urgings often fall on the deaf ears of a management that has paid a lot of money for 'expert' lean advice that assures them they can simply value stream map their way to excellence. One Evolving Excellence reader wrote to tell me that his company desperately needs one of my visits, but management is convinced that the presence of a couple of kanbans and u-shaped cells is absolute proof that they already know all there is to know about lean and have the shop floor to prove it. They are looking for another strategy since lean has not solved all of their problems.
The impetus for this post was my visit last week to Australia where the manufacturing community lags behind the US in its pursuit of lean by a considerable amount – which I believe is a great advantage for the Aussies. The managers I met are far less polluted with the "name without merit" and are more open to learning about lean in its full scope. They are willing to believe that lean requires a broad, comprehensive change in the entire scope of the business that can result only from a years long, complete transformation, largely because they have not been inundated with nonsensical advice to the contrary.
With that experience fresh in my mind I came home to an email from a reader who sent me a video about a company in Long Island called D'Addario and Company. I believe the subject of the video – a guy named Jim D'Addario who owns a very vertically integrated company making guitar strings and other peripheral products – really gets it; but the reporter sure doesn't. The millions of people who will tune into the CNN video will hear that Jim has implemented "the Toyota waste reduction strategy popularly known as lean. It relies heavily on automation." The reporter goes on to describe lean as primarily a job elimination device.
We award certificates of lean competence to folks who know little or nothing about management, have never been exposed to lean accounting or enterprise management, but have demonstrated mastery of shop floor techniques. We confer Shingo Prizes on companies roaring toward bankruptcy – then with these shining examples of what lean is all about, wonder why more companies aren't stepping up to restructuring into value streams and implementing major changes in their financial thinking and accounting systems.
With the Kaizen Kowboys running around advising people to value stream map their way to excellence, and CNN telling the world that lean is all about automation and killing jobs, it should come as no surprise that manufacturers are not running out in big numbers to launch five to ten year long overhauls of their entire business to achieve true excellence.
Maybe the lean leaders are right – we should leave the term "lean" to the CNN reporters and self-proclaimed experts who derive their expertise from failed lean initiatives, and come up with a new name.