Beware of Lean Tool Merchants

Snake Charmers

“Snakecharmers” a chromolithograph by Alfred Brehm ca. 1883

By France Bergeron and Joanne Gaudet.

Increased interest for the Lean management approach at all levels of government in Canada is undoubtedly one of the best news stories of the decade for citizens and for public servants. Lean’s pillars of respect for people and continuous improvement (through rigorous use of the scientific approach to problem solving) help focus on delivering value to citizens. There appears to be a rising cause for concern, however, as some who are stepping in to fill the rising demand for Lean services in the public sector appear to be engaging in ‘fake Lean’, a term coined by Bob Emiliani.

Among other questionable practices, ‘fake Lean’ can haphazardly focus on tools by disseminating them indiscriminately to public servants with little regard for how these should be used and with no impetus to identify the root cause of problems these tool should be addressing. Band-Aid solutions, i.e., ill-chosen Lean ‘tools’, abound. Lean tool merchants are meeting market demand – but unfortunately it amounts to quick sales and unsustainable practices. You could compare this to surgeons dolling out scalpels and surgical instruments with nigh a worry as to how the instruments could be used nor if the problems they were intended to address were properly diagnosed and understood before a decision for self-surgical intervention was made – driving up surgical instrument sales, but causing mayhem, mutilations, increased costs in hospitals to address unintended consequences and decreased trust.

Given that Lean is science (read one of our previous posts), there is an insightful comparison that can be made with what is commonly known as Western science. In Western science, rigorous scientific methods (i.e., statistical analysis) are part and parcel of the scientific approach. Using scientific methods without first having extensively scoped and delineated a problem (i.e., not understanding the core issue and addressing most all assumptions), however, can lead to contradictory and inconclusive research results (see example of research on peptic ulcers). Until the root cause of a problem is identified, no matter how many tools are thrown its way, it is unlikely that it will yield intelligible research results.

One question this situation raises is how do ‘fake Lean’ practices come to be? In our view, a first place to look is how Lean is ‘packaged’ – as a generic set of tools and templates – by tool merchants and how it is ultimately understood by those involved. In contrast, Lean management as a contextual scientific approach to problem solving used every day by every employee to offer value from the perspective of citizens is real Lean. In essence, what appears to be a similar problem in a different context might require a completely different tool – problem solving, not tools, is at the core of Lean.

Unfortunately, when ‘fake Lean’ rises in government, everyone loses. Public servants lose because they are not engaged in sustained every-day problem solving. Governments lose because problems are recurring and this can lead to demoralized public servants and disengaged and disillusioned citizens. The scars from the application of ill-advised tools can run deep, only become visible in years to come and sow disdain for Lean management. There is a solution – let’s demand to make every tax dollar count and focus on real Lean!

Originally published on LinkedIn Beware of Lean Tool Merchants