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September 14, 2011

Is lean in danger of becoming the new Puritanism?

Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the lean philosophy and am a keen advocate of people working together as one team to understand their business processes as a system and working to improve the system holistically. The trouble is that lean is sometimes presented in a way that feels akin to Puritanism – sweeping away the “idolatry” of old management structures and functional divisions; smashing the icons of “traditional” management; and replacing them with a new pure management.


Perhaps I am over-dramatising a little, but when I see lean advocates writing about 5S-ing their kitchen or their linen cupboard, it strikes me as the modern equivalent of banning music in church. Some congregations still adhere to that, but most of us like a bit of music in our lives.


Lean puritanism can be even more worrying when it is seen in company implementations. The lean zealots start to gain the ascendancy and, suddenly, they want to start burning heretics – i.e. anyone who doesn’t fully subscribe to their way of thinking. I’ve seen lean advocates complaining about workers who leave on time rather than stay behind to take part in training or improvement activity. They want to give them negative performance assessments. Hey, this is the twenty-first century!. Many people have to leave work on time to collect their children; or maybe they just want to balance work with family life and personal interests. We should be encouraging a diversity of skills and experience, not trying to get everyone to think the same way.


It is little wonder that executives fear lean – they’ve worked hard to get where they are and they don’t want to suddenly discover that Christmas is outlawed because it’s waste. And unions and workers are suspicious that the equality of opportunity and workplace diversity they have spent years struggling for might get lost in a “one true way” approach (that is the main problem with the word “standardisation”).


Perhaps it’s little wonder that some people are taking lean techniques and re-badging them as “Operational Excellence” or “Business Process Excellence” to try and make them more palatable to those who fear lean puritanism.


Puritanism failed in England in the seventeen century because not everyone wants to think the same way or behave in exactly the same way. Perhaps we lean advocates need to be conscious of this lesson from history. Puritanism doesn’t work because people can’t stomach it.  The lean philosophy works best in an environment where it welcomes diversity of opinions, skills, experiences and viewpoints and uses these as strengths to improve the whole organisation.


We need to beware that lean puritanism doesn’t draw this marvellous philosophy into a cultural wasteland.