Lean Gone Too Hard

Many businesses have adopted aspects of what’s commonly referred to as lean. Lean is an overarching way of creating and sustaining an organization that’s waste free. Waste is loosely defined as any process or activity–like overproduction, scrap, rework, excessive movement, inventory–that a customer isn’t willing to pay for.  In some businesses, these efforts are creating growth through higher performance from people and processes.

But other businesses have simply gone through the motions and have little to show for their efforts other than a bunch of disgruntled employees. In most cases they fail because they  adopt tools, techniques, measures and mechanics associated with lean, but  don’t recognize that lean is a mindset  that must be built into the culture. These organizations view lean as no more than moving machines around or changing workflow arrangements without much input from employees.

A lean culture values–and is obsessed by–customers, employees and continuous improvement.

In the lean world, there’s a workplace organizational methodology called 5S (pronounced five ess). The name comes from five Japanese words that loosely translate to Sorting, Straightening, Shining, Standardizing and Sustaining. If you 5S’ed your garage this morning, it would be immaculate. There’s a place for everything and everything should be in it’s place, as the ditty goes.

But like most things in business, it’s easy to go anal nuts with lean. So nuts that some companies have used gobs of white tape to outline where, for instance, standard desk items should go on a desk–your desk. I was visiting a company recently and desks had taped outlines reserved for the stapler, the desk owners’ laptops, yet another for the paperclips, calculators and drink coasters. Neatly typed at the base of each rectangle were the words, STAPLER, LAPTOP, PAPERCLIPS, CALCULATOR AND COASTER, BLACKBERRY.

Now some lean acolytes would respond by saying, “Of course, that’s the way it’s supposed to be to make sure everything has its place and is in its place.”

To these acolytes I’d suggest they take their trolls of tape where they will do some good and not offend my sensitivities to pure, unadulterated tackiness and most employees’ sensitivities to intrusions into their personal expression.

Forcing this kind of rigid structure takes away the passion and fun out of a team’s quest for greatness. I visit a lot of offices and employee cubicles and I get a real kick out of seeing family pictures, little kid’s school drawings and personalized disorder that communicates about the owner of the cubicle or the office.  There’s a line between a quest for professional order and an act that snuffs out the very personality that was a key ingredient to your decision to hire Mary, the accountant.

What should really matter is our ability to meet customer requirements. For example, hospital patients (customers) might benefit if the hospital didn’t permit nurses to put medications wherever they want –each nurse having a different spot or putting the medicines in a different spot each time. The lack of standardization might lead to errors. In this case, the need for standardization probably outweighs the need for individual expression.

But in cases like determining how to decorate an office or deciding where you will place your stapler, there’s probably no customer benefit to having standardized decorations or taped off areas for your stapler, lamp or whatever. If anything, it dehumanizes the workplace. It takes away the color and passion and personal expression. The following video satirizes the use of lean as a mindless way to control.


  1. Good points Jim, but I’ve seen this “dehumanizing” of workplaces in other circumstances as well. It is not an unusual thing happening when a company acquires another company. (Especially when there is a geographocal and general culture difference to deal with.) When the integration teams comes in out goes the personal touch that people had built in their immediate office environment…
    MY conclusion is that this is something for all of us (regardles of Lean) to be aware of and help recognize when it happens.

  2. I agree that this is a a problem that happens all too often when the acquiring company disregards the cultural issue as a criterion for an acquisition candidate.

    It’s important that leaders who aren’t aware of the power of culture on financial results get sound advice that helps them understand this reality.


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