Stop listening to the Lean critics!

The Lean community, like any other or the population in general, has its share of critics. There are those who vehemently oppose Lean in general (or TOC, or Six Sigma…), whilst lauding some other form of continuous improvement (or TOC, or Six Sigma…). It’s exhausting sometimes, and a turn off all of the time.

I’ve never been, nor ever claimed to be, a “Lean purist”. In fact, I often argue that there is truly no such thing. Lean was born (coined) from the Toyota Production System (and yes – there are critics who’d argue that these are two separate things) in 1988 when John Krafcik wrote this white paper while a researcher at MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program. From there, the book The Machine that Changed the World was written, and the rest is Lean history. Assuming that Lean = TPS for a minute, let’s refer to something Taichii Ohno once said: “Something is wrong if workers do not look around each day, find things that are tedious or boring, and then rewrite the procedures. Even last month’s manual should be out of date.” Now read the last sentence again thinking about Lean itself. Should Lean not be just as fluid as our processes? In truth, can’t we say that what worked 30 years ago may not work today??

We see this a lot at our clients. As their companies grow and they add/subtract products and services, they have to change up not only what they do but how they do it. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. So is Lean any different?

Lean seems to be stuck in neutral for some people. We see this play out on social media (mostly LinkedIn) often. Someone will post about a Kaizen event they did with their team, or take a picture of their daily huddle board, and someone else will post a snarky response about the merits of what they did, or grill them about how they did what they did with undertones of “I’m asking because you didn’t do it right”. These comments are usually followed up with statements like “I studied under Shingijutsu” or “I’ve been to Japan X number of times”, which all are interpreted to mean “I know this stuff better than you, so I’m right”. To me, this is the equivalent of the guy on the golf course who gives me unsolicited advice about my swing. If I want advice, I’ll ask for it. Plus, what works for you may not work for me. I’m just here for the beer and to drive a golf cart recklessly, but thanks anyway.

Another issue here deals with the spectrum of inputs. People, organizational culture, products, services, processes, procedures… there are so many inputs at play, I’m not sure a textbook method necessarily works for everyone. Who’s to say what is right or wrong? Now, I’ll admit that even I’ve corrected folks who claim that Lean is for speed and Six Sigma is for quality (or other like misnomers), but never do I tell someone that PDCA is wrong and PDSA is right, for example. If it works for you and your organization, it’s right, and only you and your organization can make that determination.

Critics are opinion dealers, and nothing more. They may have decent credentials, but those don’t necessarily make them right. In fact, it can actually make them vulnerable because they have to worry about and protect their reputation. Having a strong opinion and a thesaurus does not an expert make.

Three of my favorite examples of why this is so involve wines, violins and shoes.

While at Harvard University, Steven Levitt (since author of Freakonomics and others) was a member of an academic society named The Society of Fellows (fancy, huh?). Every once in a while the group would have wine tastings, and Steven found himself in charge of one such meeting, so he decided to test this theory with a blind test. He bought 3 bottles of wine – 2 expensive, one very cheap. He split these into 4 decanters, so 2 of the decanters had the same exact wine in them. He then had the guests rate them. They rated all 4 very highly, which was surprise #1. Surprise #2 was that the most variation in the ratings occurred between the two decanters that had the same exact wine in them! Conclusion – not even Harvard wine snobs can tell the difference in what they’re drinking. When Steven revealed what he’d done, the critics were quick to start making excuses about their having colds, or not properly cleansing their palates in between tastings. In short, they were pissed they’d been had (exposed?).

Lesson to learn – drink what tastes good.

Another similar story involves a blind hearing test involving Stradivarius violins. Considered by many as the crown jewel of violins, some antique versions have sold for more than $15 million. There is a lot of romanticism surrounding these instruments, with hours of discussions concerning what make these particular violins so much better than anything else. Is it the varnish? The type of wood? The manufacturing process? Surely there is some secret sauce…

These tests have shown, over and over, that people cannot tell the difference between Strads and newer violins. In fact, the violinists themselves couldn’t tell (they wore welding goggles so they couldn’t see what they had in their hands). Some respondents said that the newer, less revered instruments actually produce a better sound than their older, much more expensive counterparts.

Lesson to learn – play what sounds best.

The final example involves a stunt that Payless shoes pulled in 2018. Known for selling “affordable” shoes, the retailer opened a fake storefront in an old Armani location, named it “Palessi” to sound Italian, and filled it with shoes they’d normally sell for $20-$40. Then, they invited a bunch of social media influencers to come in and check them out. These “experts” fawned all over the products, espousing about the superior construction, the fashion-forward style, etc. etc. and paid in excess of 1500% of the normal MSRP. As you may suspect, the jig was up once Payless came clean.

Lesson to learn – wear what you like and what fits your needs.

My advice is to stop listening to the critics, or at least take their opinions for what they are. These are undoubtedly based upon their experiences (and their biases), and those may be 100% true for them, in those instances, at that point in their lives, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be true for you or for me where we are.

I think the best part, and perhaps the true “secret sauce” of Lean is that there is no set playbook. Maybe that’s the juxtaposition of Lean that so many seem to struggle with. Standard Work and Continuous Improvement is based upon finding the “one best way”, and then building upon that to make it better again. Maybe that’s where this notion should stop. Kaizen, Kata and PDSA (or PDCA if that’s your thing)… they all circle around a central idea of “let’s try it and see if it works, quickly”. I’m not sure once can embrace that mentality while also maintaining that there’s only a certain path that all must follow along one’s Lean journey. I like to think that there’s more to it. For me, that’s the fun part of the process. And shouldn’t this be fun?