Search By Topic The Green Supply Chain Distribution Digest
Supply Chain Digest Logo

Category: Manufacturing

Supply Chain News: Is Lean Just A Scam To Squeeze Manufacturing Teams For More Production?


Lean Works, but Some Managers May in Fact Use if as a Ploy

May 26, 2017
SCDigest Editorial Staff

The following column comes through special arrangement with the Lean Enterprise Institute. It was authored by Michael Ballé, a Lean management practitioner, business writer, and author.

Reader question: Lean is a scam. We've had consultants working with us on a "Lean transformation" for two years and all they do is put pressure on teams for more and tell us that if it doesn't work it's because we don't try hard enough. I've been reading the Lean books and I feel that people like you who write about "respect" are pushing a smoke screen that allows consultants to just squeeze teams for more production without ever resolving the company's deeper problems.


Are you guys pulling? Seriously, I hear what you're saying and am not dismissing it at all, as I can very well visualize how this can be happening. But before we go further in this discussion, the first question is: Are you really doing Lean or have you been sold old-fashioned Taylorism in the guise of Lean?

Supply Chain Digest Says...

How to deal with Lean when management's intent is to use the tool for productivity pressure and squeezing more out of people, I don't know.

What do you say?

Click here to send us your comments
Click here to see reader feedback

Here are the three core criteria I'd use to evaluate how "Lean" is your Lean transformation program:

1. How serious are we about giving value back to the customer? The Lean strategy is about leveraging value from the entire supply chain by eliminating systemic muda (this is fractal, from engineering, design, and the supply chain to seven wastes on a workstation) in order to give it back to customers. The rule-of-thumb is expressed in thirds: 1/3 extra value to the customer, 1/3 we keep, 1/3 goes to suppliers who have contributed to the improvement effort.

2. How determined are we to pull value across the supply chain? A just-in-time pull system is a device to align the entire operation (collaboration across boundaries) with (averaged) real-time customer demand. By withdrawing at short intervals across the value chain, one creates a creative tension that is focused on delivering good parts to internal customers (and then final customer) at the right time in the right sequence, and therefore solving all the problems that appear as a result of this pull tension.

3. How committed are we to developing people?
Working with people means first, not solving problems "administratively" but giving each person the means to solve their own problems (mostly visual management and support) as well as supporting them through both open-minded management and enabling systems so that they do solve their problems. In Lean, we hire people to succeed at their jobs, not just do their jobs.

Buyer Beware

I am not dismissing your complaint, but please evaluate your Lean effort according to these three dimensions, 0 to 10. This will tell you whether you're indeed engaged in a Lean initiative or just the usual operational excellence program.

I realize this might not help you out of your predicament, but it might help determine where, exactly, the feeling of being scammed comes from. I do not believe that Lean is a scam, at all. I honestly believe that Lean is a new way of doing business, pioneered by Toyota (who's still ahead of the game with its Lean programs, the Toyota Production System, the Toyota Development System and the Toyota Sales System). We're trying to figure out what this means outside Toyota and the automotive industry.

As to consultants who are not committed to real Lean, but sell the same old tired story as Lean (the recent rash is selling grandpa's management by objectives as hoshin kanri, completely ignoring the "catchball" principle) - what's there to say? Buyer beware.

As to the charge that writing about "respect" is a smokescreen, well, this is indeed more complicated. Again, what do we mean by "respect"?

(Article Continued Below)


Learn More about Softeon's Innovative Supply Chain Solutions


As to the charge that writing about "respect" is a smokescreen, well, this is indeed more complicated. Again, what do we mean by "respect"?

The origin of the phrase "respect-for-people" seems to be "respect-for-humanity," which is quite different when you think about it. We're not talking about being polite here (although that is good, for sure), we're talking about respecting the facts that humans are … humans. In other words:

• Their time is precious: Every human's life runs minute-by-minute, second by second. Every second of meaningless work we ask something to do is an insult to their profound need to do something useful with their life, or at least their working time.

• When people are not challenged enough they get bored; when they're overburdened, they get stressed: "Overburden" is an interesting concept because it can apply in many different situations. Asking someone to do a boring, meaningless, repetitive task is just as much an overburden as a dangerous work environment, or too much pressure on productivity. We're always overburdening people. The Lean question is: how much and on what dimension? What can we do to help them cope better? What can we do to reduce the overburden?

• People need to work in teams they can trust: No one is an island, and work is great if you look forward to seeing your colleagues, or can become hell if you can't stand them. Doing everything we can to support teams and team spirit is a large part of respecting humanity.

• People need to be recognized for their efforts: Taylorism has us convinced we need to reward people for their results, and that may be true, but mostly people need to be recognized for making an effort and hate the unfairness of others apparently being rewarded or praised when everyone knows they're really coasting and appropriating others' work.

• There is real joy in creation: At the end of the day, everyone experiences deep fulfilling joy in creative acts, if the work of creation is not too difficult (such as fighting systems, others, or management to get anything done). A creative idea system is a key - often misunderstood - part of any Lean system.

A Hope, Not a Scam

Lean systems are clearly designed to create the conditions for fruitful, meaningful work. How to deal with Lean when management's intent is to use the tool for productivity pressure and squeezing more out of people, I don't know.

Creating the conditions for meaningful work through respecting people's people-ness is essentially what we write about: how can we create work conditions where work is more natural and where people are hired to succeed at their job, not just to do their job? Although much of what I write is fiction, I do write it from real-life cases (which I then disguise to protect the innocent and guilty alike). I believe that the points we make are real, and not make-believe to hide an ugly truth.

Is Lean a scam? I honestly don't believe so. I think it's a hope. Toyota showed us how there can be a better way both to work and compete, and Lean is the sum of our efforts to understand this lesson and transfer it outside of Toyota and outside of the automotive industry. Have all our attempts been successful? Clearly not, and we learned many lessons on the way (not the least of which is to always go back to the basics of TPS). Still, here's the door, and the room is large.

Can any hope be turned into a scam? Absolutely, Lean or otherwise. We see this every day. But remember that any scam is a deal between the scammer and the scammed, who hopes to get something for nothing.

What is your view of this response to the question of is Lean a scam? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


Your Comments/Feedback


Senior Consultant, Infosys
Posted on: May, 22 2016
Great article. I am a little suprised not to see BNSF in the mix while I understand their financial mode/operation is a little different. 

That would only give a complete perspective with all the players in the pool.

Mike O'Brien

Senior editor, Access Intelligence
Posted on: May, 26 2016
Surprised to see Home Depot fall off the list; thought they were winning with Sync?

Julie Leonard

Marketing Director, Inovity
Posted on: Jun, 27 2016
Using the right tool for the right job has always been a best practice and one of the reasons, we feel, that RFID has never taken off in the DC as exponentially as pundits have been forecasting since 2006. While these results may seem surprising to those solely focused on barcode scanning, the adoption of multi-modal technologies in the DC makes perfect sense for greater worker efficiency and productivity.

Carsten Baumann

Strategic Alliance Manager, Schneider Electric
Posted on: Aug, 19 2016

The IoT Platform in this year's (2016) Hype Cycle is on the ascending side, entering the "Peak of Inflated Expectation" area. How does this compare to the IoT positions of the previous years, which have already peaked in 2015? Isn't this contradicting in itself?

Editor's Note: 

You are right, Internet of Things (IoT) was at the top of the Garter new technology hype curve not long ago. As you noted, however, this time the placement was for “IoT Platforms,” a category of software tools from a good number of vendors to manage connectivity, data communications and more with IoT-enabled devices in the field.

So, this is different fro IoT generally, though a company deploying connected things obviously needs some kind of platform – hoe grown or acquired – to manage those functions.

Why IoT generically is not on the curve this year I wondered myself.



Jo Ann Tudtud-Navalta

Materials Management Manager, Chong Hua Hospital, Cebu City, Philippines
Posted on: Aug, 21 2016

I agree totally with Mr. Schneider.

I have always lived by "put it in writing" all my work life.  I am a firm believer of the many benefits of putting everything in writing and I try to teach it to as many people as I can.

This "putting in writing" can also be used for almost anything else.  Here are some general benefits (only some) of "putting in writing":

1. Everything is better understood between parties involved.  There are lots of people types who need something visual to improve their understanding.
2. Everyone can read to review and correct anything misunderstood.  This will ensure that all parties concerned confirm the details of the agreements as correct.  This is further enhanced by having all parties involved sign off on a hard copy or confirm via reply email.
3. Everything has a proof.  Not to belittle the element of trust among parties involved, it is always safest to have tangible proof of what was agreed on.
4. There will be a document to refer to at any time by any one who needs clarification.
5. The documentation can be useful historical data for any future endeavor.  It provides inputs for better decisions on related situations in the future.
6. This can also be compiled and used to teach future new team members.  "Learn from the past" it is said.

There are many more benefits.  Mr. Schneider is very correct about his call to "put it in writing".

Sandy Montalbano

Consultant, Reshoring Initiative
Posted on: Aug, 24 2016
U.S. companies are reshoring and foreign companies are investing in U.S. locations to be in close proximity to the U.S. market for customer responsiveness, flexibility, quality control, and for the positive branding of "Made in USA".

Reshoring including FDI balanced offshoring in 2015 as it did in 2014. In comparison, in 2000-2007 the U.S. lost net about 200,000 manufacturing jobs per year to offshoring. That is huge progress to celebrate!

The Reshoring Initiative Can Help. In order to help companies decide objectively to reshore manufacturing back to the U.S. or offshore, the nonprofit Reshoring Initiative's free Total Cost of Ownership Estimator can help corporations calculate the real P&L impact of reshoring or offshoring.


Transportation Manager, N/A
Posted on: Aug, 30 2016
 Good article!  I am sending this to my colleagues who work with me.  We have to keep this in mind.  Thanks!

Ian Jansen

Posted on: Sep, 14 2016
SCM is all about getting the order delivered to the Customer on date/ time requested because happy Customers = Revenue. Using the right tools to do the right job is important and SCM is heavily dependent on sophisticated ERP systems to get right real data info ASP.

I've worked in a DC with more than 400,000 line items and measured the Productivity of Pickers by how many "picks" per day.

I've learned that one doesn't have to remind Germany about your EDI orders.

Don Benson

Partner, Warehouse Coach
Posted on: Sep, 15 2016
Challenge - to build and sustain effective relationships at the level of the organizations that are responsible for effectively coordinating and colaborating in an otherwise highly competitive environment 


Admin, Fulfillment Logistics UK Ltd
Posted on: Oct, 02 2016
Of course we all need to up our game. We need to move with the times, and always be one step ahead of what the future will bring.

Mike Dargis

President of asset-based carrier based in the Midwest, Zip Xpress Inc. (at
Posted on: Oct, 03 2016
Thanks for the article, but I know there's a lot more to this issue than just the pay rates. Please check out my blogs on the subject at


Inventory Specialist, Syncron
Posted on: Nov, 16 2016
Lora, great article! I agree that companies choose the 'safe' solution more often than not. My solution is a bolt-on for legacy ERP's and we even face challeneges of customer adoption. Most like to play it safe and choose an ERP upgrade, which is more costly, time consuming, and has lower ROI across the board. Would love to learn more about your company, we are always looking for partnerships.


Bob McIntyre

National Account Executive, DBK Concepts LLC
Posted on: Nov, 21 2016
This is a game changer in GE's production and prototyping.  It also has huge implications across the GE global supply chain with regard to the management of their support and spare parts network. 

Kai Furmans

Professor, KIT
Posted on: May, 22 2017
I am referencing to the comment that leasing of warehousing equipment (beyond forklift trucks) is a vision for 2030.
Just recently in Europe, such a business model has started, see here:

I am following with a lot of interest, how the business develops.




Follow Us

Supply Chain Digest news is available via RSS
RSS facebook twitter youtube
bloglines my yahoo
news gator


Subscribe to our insightful weekly newsletter. Get immediate access to premium contents. Its's easy and free
Enter your email below to subscribe:
Join the thousands of supply chain, logistics, technology and marketing professionals who rely on Supply Chain Digest for the best in insight, news, tools, opinion, education and solution.
Home | Subscribe | Advertise | Contact Us | Sitemap | Privacy Policy
© Supply Chain Digest 2006-2013 - All rights reserved