A Really Crummy Article About Lean

Rick Bohan

I don’t get to the Interest Groups at LinkedIn as often as I should but I browsed around there yesterday and found a really crummy article.  I don’t want to link to it because I don’t want to give it any traffic but it’s title was “The Dark Side of Lean”.  It was one of those articles, the likes I’ve read a number of versions over the years, that seeks to impugn an approach of which the author makes it apparent that he or she knows nothing.  

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

This is a story about a man who started a Swiss Cheese factory. He grew his business slowly employing 50 employees and gaining a 5% market share. He made a small profit. He decided to double his production, building a bigger factory and hiring an additional 50 workers. He did not understand the market or why people bought Swiss Cheese, his sales only increased by 10%. He began to lose a lot of money. In desperation, he hired a manufacturing consultant to implement lean. The consultant suggested he automate his manufacturing process to cut costs.

Is the story true or fictional?  Hard to tell.  There are several dumb decisions packed into this paragraph, which leads me to believe the author made it up to fit his argument.  But, managers and consultants do lots of dumb things, so let’s assume it’s true.  He’s managed to hire a “lean consultant” whose first suggestion is to automate.  Most of you reading that will immediately think, “That’s evidence that either the story is fictional because no lean consultant would recommend automation as the first step or that a “lean consultant” who didn’t actually know a damn thing about lean managed had been hired.

The story goes on:

After deploying a prototype and an approved first article, he transferred the automated process to his production team. As a result, he reduced his monthly operating costs by 50% after laying off 50 employees. His defects went to zero because machines don’t make mistakes. The lean principle is “Perfection”. His sales only increased by 5% but his profits increased by more than 60%. With the extra profits, he purchased all of the competition increasing his market share from 5% to more than 80%. While he added 400 employees with acquisitions, he promptly applied the lean philosophy of automation. He reduced his operating cost by 80%, by laying off 320 employees. His profits soured. Since he got rid of the competition, he doubled his price. He became a billionaire, retired and bought a south seas island. All because of Lean!

Now, we’re really starting to wonder if the story isn’t fictional.  But, let’s put aside all the obvious problems with the story (A 50% reduction in production costs followed by an additional 80% reduction?  Really?).  My big problem with the article is that it utterly, completely, horridly misrepresents lean.  There is nothing at all in the article that points to anything remotely consistent with lean concepts and principles.

Fortunately, the author caught hell in the comments section, most of them pointing to the author as a poseur and a charlatan.  My own comment was one of the less vituperative.

And yet…some managers somewhere might read the article and think “Gosh, if that’s what lean is about, I’m not sure I want my organization to get involved.” And that would be a shame.


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