Lean Messaging…It Ain’t What It Used To Be

Rick Bohan

Actually, it never was.
I had an interesting experience recently that involved the manner in which lean has been defined, described, taught, and talked about for these past 30 years or so.  I was asked to take part in something of a discussion group that would toss around ideas as to how lean and the way it’s presented to managers could be “re-imagined”.  I was very much up for the project.  During our first virtual get-together, we divided into four topic groups:  Messaging, Deployment, Site Visits (I never quite understood that one) and…something else that escapes me at the moment.  I chose the Messaging group; in fact, I volunteered to lead it, which meant taking responsibility for pulling my team members together virtually on a regular basis to discuss how messaging about lean principles and methods has or has not been effective.  I was looking forward to getting the chance to exchange thoughts with other practitioners.
Let me take a step back to go over my own view of “lean messaging” as it’s been practiced for the past few decades:  with a few exceptions, it sucks.  The literature on lean (for the most part, IMHO) is boring, jejune, pedantic, and largely free of merit.  (I’ve expressed my views in several of my Industry Week articles, which I’ll link to below.)  There are, of course, no small number of speakers, teachers, and practitioners who are worth listening to.  But too much of what we all hear and read speaks to lean tactics and tools with promises of “greater efficiency” and “reduced wastes (i.e. “costs”).  As a result, managers hire people like to help “their people” implement a “set of tools” and expect “cost savings”.  And they fail.  Over and over again.
I used to work for a guy that got impatient with me whenever I spoke about the organization’s culture and how it supports or hinders lean.
“Managers don’t want to hear about ‘culture’,” he’d tell me.
“Correction,” I’d reply, “Managers who are dumb shits don’t want to hear about culture.”
He was right, of course.  Too many managers want to know how much sin they can commit and still get to heaven.  That is, they’ve heard things that lead them to believe that lean provides a straightforward path to productivity and all that’s needed is a “sensei” and a few “kaizen blitzes”.
All to say, I was eager to find out if my own cynical view of  the “lean message” was mine alone or if others felt the same way.
It turned out that others felt the same way.  I was, frankly, kind of shocked at the extent to which the few of us that met with some regularity seemed to be on the same page with respect to the inadequacy of lean messaging.  We were all of a mind that:

Lean is all about culture change. If managers are uncomfortable talking about culture change, there’s no other way to talk with them about lean.
Culture change is about behavior change.  The first people who need to change their behaviors are leaders.  Telling others that they are “committed” to the lean initiative isn’t really behavior change.
Trying to get “better efficiency”, “more productivity”, “less waste” and “lower costs” is pretty much the road to lean failure.  If these goals are paramount for leaders, it’s not worth talking to them about lean.
The tools matter but not that much.
So far, so good, right?  We have a small group of practitioners who are on the same page with respect to the problem at hand.  We can turn our focus to how to change the messaging!  Well, I guess the folks who pulled us all together in the first place got wind of our anarchical discussions and showed up at our last meeting.  It was soon clear that their interest wasn’t so much in the development of “different and effective messaging” as it was in the development of “attractive messaging”.  My colleagues allowed as how “attractive messaging” was directly responsible for most lean failures.  The next thing you know I’m practically shouting at the folks who had pulled us together, team members are leaving the meeting rapidly and suddenly, and the whole effort comes to a crashing halt.

I’m going to try to stay in touch with my fellow team members…we had gotten some good discussions going.  I’m unhappy that things have ended this way.  Oh, well.  Maybe they, like my old boss, have a point…calling  managers who don’t want to talk about their organization’s culture “dumb shits” might not be the best approach.  I guess I just can’t help myself.


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