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Is This the End of Lean?

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In this blog post, Is This the End of Lean?, Jim Womack is quoted, "Many of us in the Lean Community have focused our attention on improving core processes in organizations by deploying brilliant tools when we should have been focused on improving the management process itself." Do you agree? 

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  • Concern is valid, the deduction is not.

    I share the sentiment on the concern that tools take much of the attention away from the discipline and methods. However, we would be taking an extreme stand if we conclude that it would mean an end to the discipline itself.

    I had shared this concern in this little post some time back - http://ashishbhagwat.wordpress.com/2010/04/08/when-tools-become-everything/

  • What has happened here is simple: the world of business has moved on and Lean (and Six Sigma) hasn't. An outdated discipline cannot compete with a modern and rapidly changing world, a methodology that stays static under the belief it can match current trends is somewhat deluded. Lean hasn't change in decades, is it surprising this seems to be called out time and again ?

    If people are turning to BPMS systems as a way of solving their issues then this is a good indicator that they no longer believe the methods can deliver.

    When Lean and Sigma evolve for the 21st century business(and drop the elitist attitude to boot) then we can all say with certainty "Lean is dead. Long live Lean"

  • I have never been a real fan of lean, simply because I feel it looks great, but doesnt deliver real efficiency and is far too slow to adapt to the needs of business.

    So many vendors provide tool kits, out of the box connectors etc etc many of which dont apply to the businesses that invest in BPM solutions, simply because they dont integrate with the software that organisation has chosen, or the integration options are just far too limiting..Tools like these take a lot of investment to deliver, and can look great, but they dont really bring anything to the table when thinking about real process improvement across an enterprise...

    So for me, lean is dead...

  • I hate to say it but I agree wholeheartedly. Theo got it with the 'elitist' tag. Methodologies, like products, need their own terms and lingo to differentiate them from the pack and to help people that cling to them to feel like part of a special pack. Lean took this a little too far I think, and is now being held back by the people that feel it is in their best interest to not move on. Just like BPM(S) market really.

    The concept behind Lean is great though. We need to improve the way we run our business processes. The people on the ground know what we do today, and we can groom some of them (and give them some tools) to help us work out what to do better. And let's not just do it once, let's do it again, and again. Can't argue with it.

    We just need the tools and the ideas to move with the times and the business. BPM'ers need to not be throwing stones. I have a feeling that we are equally elitist and tied to the 20th century software that defined us.

  • I think, that good parts of Lean (e.g. a comprehensive set of heuristics for process improvement) as well as good parts from ISO 9000 and 6Sigma, will join BPM which is a management discipline to address a bigger scope. A bit about this in http://improving-bpm-systems.blogspot.com/2010/02/bpm-reference-model-from-book-about-bpm_13.html


  • It's nice to see this becoming a constructive debate rather than the usual flame-war seen on LinkedIn with the intention of simply baiting the other side, usually initiated by the same people for attention.

    Good stuff ebizQ for bringing it out into the open.

  • From my personal observations, business leaders' awareness of Lean is higher than that of BPM. So if Lean is dead then BPM isn't born yet.

    Now how do these two relate to each other? For most of BPMers it's newer, better, more capable. For me, this is counter-productive. People are tired of flame wars and prophets blaming religions other than their. We'd hardly win business peoples' minds this way.

    So I propose a different viewpoint: Lean and BPM sit on different layers of competence stack and don't compete to each other. Going top-down, the first layer is business/management concepts: Lean, TQM, ToC, O/I. Second layer is process and project management. Third layer is functional management.

    My message to prospective customers is this: whatever business concept is appealing to you -
    1) it can't be implemented without proper dealing with business processes;
    2) business processes don't excuse non-professional treatment;
    3) the most professional approach to business procesess today is called BPM.

    So whatever business concept you like, BPM will help to implement it for you - it's a kind of "driving belt" for your business transformation initiative.

    This is the beauty of layered architecture: one can switch to different implementation of some layer without breaking other layers. E.g. an enterprise can switch from Lean to SixSigma (not an unusual thing) yet keep and reuse the competence in process management.

    This means constraining BPM methodology by tactics and leaving the strategy for the top layer. E.g. process discovery and agile implementation are part of BPM while choosing the right process for BPM initative should be done on the higher competence level. (After all, no system shall establish targets for itself.)

    More on the matter - http://mainthing.ru/item/245/

    • user-pic


      Well said Anatoly. Your 'stack ' reduces confusion as to where initiatives sit.

      PS I would not call it 'competence stack' but 'management spectrum' as competence hierarchy is accidentally pejorative and I would say moving across the spectrum rather than down a stack as for example management of the customer service department may be functional but it might be the most important thing in some business (think cleaning management in hospitals) .

      • Thank you for support Graham.

        I agree. "Stack" is a correct term from techie's perspective but others may perceive it as a kind of subordination and feel uncomfortable.

        Does IP subordinate to TCP? :)

  • First of all, what does lean really mean? many companies go for lean while pushing their "waste" out to suppliers and channel, that is not truly lean. Second, lean needs to be balanced by risk management. Indeed, by becoming lean, all buffers, that could cushion potential problems, are released. One goes to a just in time approach, which indeed makes problems visible very quickly, but also reduces delivery performance. So, balancing lean and risk is key to maintain customer satisfaction.

  • I'm puzzled as to why someone would think that LEAN, Six Sigma et al are transformational tools. And then use this lack of "transformational LEAN" to posit that LEAN was on the way out. This view seems to miss the point.

    LEAN and co are operational tools, growing out of operations and focused on incremental improvement to push the bottom line down. LEAN will not push a company into new sectors, create new industries, or new business models. It will not transform a company into something new. It will rip out cost and reduce cycle time though. And these methods are good at this too -- we often forget how good --and have become part of the standard operational toolbox. Don't expect them to go away. All we're seeing is the method reaching maturity, after a boom over the last 5 year or so as everyone caught up. Sad for the folk who have ridden the wave, but good for the industry as a whole.

    However, neither LEAN or the other methods mentioned have ever been, nor (I expect) will they ever be, transformation tools. Go buy the Blue Ocean book if you want that. Or, better yet, go and talk to someone who has a track record of transforming organisations.

    BPM, too, is an operational tool, and not a transformative one, and will see a similar life-cycle. But that's a slightly different rant.

    • Even if Lean itself isn't a transformation, the acceptance of this paradigm through the organization IS a transformation. The same is true for BPM.

      • That just underlines my point: LEAN, Six Sigma, BPM et al are something you implement in your business once, not a tool to reinvent the business multiple times. It's nice to be seen as transformational and of strategic importance to the business, but that time has passed.

        I'm with Ashish Bhagwat on this one: LEAN et al are well respected methodologies which are a standard part of the tool box. Saying that LEAN is going away is silly. Assuming that LEAN will have the same impact in the future as it did in the past is also silly.

        • I'm not sure "implemented once" is applicable to constant improvement initiatives. Do you consider Lean, SixSigma or BPM implementation as one-time projects?

          "That time has passed" - I'd love to live on your planet :)

          • Once you've implemented a lean practice in your business, you don't do it a second time. You just let the practice get on with it. A simple idea really: the distinction between the adoption of a methodology (implementation) and its application (methodological initiatives).

            Clearly that time has passed, otherwise this discussion wouldn't exist.

  • Since I had nothing to do with 'Lean', so far, I just replace the term by 'Controlling'. Why ? Because Lean, just like Controlling, seems to say: Do not waste any resources. Look around, where you are throwing money down the drain.

    Controlling, alias Lean, dates back to the assembly-line age. More recently, leaders are thinking of applying it to Workflow organization.

    Which means, the process to control is running, neither in the stratum of 'Machine automation', nor in the stratum of 'Functional automation' (logistics), but in the stratum of 'Social automation'.

    And the respective resources are neither phyical power, nor functional intelligence, but human abilitity to manage working together, organizing all kinds of workflows. How to best organize a specific workflow, is the question, where 'Lean' comes in.

    From a bird-eyes perspective, the various forms of Workflow organization all reside on a linear scale, reaching from pure self-organization to complete government.

    Experience is telling us: While you cannot do without government in an enterprise, you are best off, in respect to human resources, with the highest degree of self-organization, just compatible with irreducible external restrictions. Trying to achieve this, is Lean-Management in the context of Workflow organization (stratum of Social automation), as I understand it.

    Unfortunately, BPM is intrinsically referring to Functional, rather than Social automation, and therefore cannot deal at all with the problem of optimal balance between Governance and Self-Organization.

    While BPM-strategists can model the governance part of Workflow organization approximately in terms of models taken from Functional automation, they definitely cannot account for the component of self-organization. In trying to improve the governance aspect of Workflow organization (by functional reasoning), BPM-people are most likely cutting out a lot of Lean-friendly self-organization as - waste.

    Conclusion: BPM-technology is beneficial to Lean in Logistics, but detrimental to Lean in Workflow organization. So, yes, for Workflow organization, following the BPM-doctrine would be the end of 'Lean', in the stratum of Social automation. I am sorry Ashish.

  • This discussions seems to be veering off to refer to BPM, quite expected. But there's a big difference. BPM has been primarily driven by technology support provided by BPMS, BPA, BAM, SOA, and so on. While Lean principles were adopted primarily by manufacturing organizations in the areas of waste removal, and tools to support it came in much later.

    I still see many organizations that could do well with the Lean principles - whether with technology or not. It's just common sense most of the times. While questions prompted by the technology-savvy part of the community are valid, I think they still represent only one part of the story. The discipline story in my view still holds good, just that we would do well to not dilute it.

    I think some of the questions on lean, TQM, JIT are also prompted by the recent product recalls from veterans like Toyota and Honda. Much of the confidence in these disciplines takes a hit due to such setbacks, but the essence of it all doesn't change.

    It's like this - Project Management is an old discipline, just because you have commoditization of the practice and because there are whole lot of people doing Project Management now, and many of them turn out to be just bad practitioners - it doesn't make the discipline and its core principles faulty or outdated. We need to practice it, with the technology and even without it. Preferably with technology because that would be more effective, but tools cannot completely replace brains - and we do need to apply brain too when driving operational excellence.

  • Lean may have some life in it. The Times newspaper ran a big article today on Lean. Maybe that means Lean is in fact dead when mainstream news is picking it up.

    Nevertheless, Nimbus got a couple of great mentions.

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