The hijacking of Lean Management or management’s flight from complexity?


“Lean production is a work organization model that favors the development of proactive, competent employees who are prepared and motivated to think and suggest improvements.”

— Philippe

Hidden behind the magical power of measurement quantified using intrinsically false data, Management is finding itself unable to deliver performance in a complex world within ever more complex organizations.

Didn’t Lean Management provide the keys to performance?

In the 1990s, didn’t the complexity sciences largely contribute to the revival of the practice of management control in France, by moving away from instrumental visions and focusing on the role played by control, its tools and its practices in learning about performance?

Reminder, Lean Management for Dummies: a base of TPS (Toyota Production System), a dash of MIT and a touch of continuous progress theory (PDCA: Plan-do-Check-Act loop) with three key performance challenges:

  • Muda – eliminating waste,
  • Mura – analyzing and managing variability in demand,
  • Muri – eliminating overburden of equipment and employees.

But decision-makers and researchers have taken flight from complexity…

“The rules of the original ‘lean’ concept might seem counter-intuitive (e.g. to control costs you must maintain a capacity reserve), because they strive to manage the great complexity of the activity systems. Now, company managers (and public-sector organizations) are often trained in problem solving rather than complex thinking.

Moreover, ‘complexity’ means ‘risk’ for the decision-maker. It is a natural temptation to run away from risk by denying complexity, by harboring illusions of control and seeking safety in methods that reduce activity systems to equations linking input measurements, output measurements and profitability.

Teachers and researchers in the field of management, particularly control, are partly responsible for this drift. Haven’t they too often neglected the complexity of human activity systems and overestimated the power of static and top-down modelling?”

— Philippe

…and Lean Management has been hijacked

“Muda” (waste) has devoured Lean and become the solution for streamlining flows and eliminating waste, leaving aside its two other founding principles: ‘mura’ (flow irregularities) and ‘muri’ (oversizing).

One formula has destroyed Lean: “Do more with less” thanks to systematic streamlining.

Our Western vision of productivity planning has forgotten Mura and Muri, forgetting that Lean, like TPS, aimed to deal with complexity rather than reduce it to a terse formula, overlooking the key role of organizational slack.

“The imperative of eliminating overwork (Muri) has led Toyota to plan overcapacities of up to 50%: this is the so-called 8-4-8-4 system (8 hours of production, 4 hours to accomplish the other tasks or deal with anything unexpected). The importance of ‘organizational slack’, the opposite of systematic streamlining is therefore quite evident.”

— Philippe

The original Lean concept is a method based on three inseparable aspects aimed at creating more value

(meeting customer needs more effectively) with less effort, stress, workload and resources, requiring the constant rethink of an organization model that continually reconciles the collective activity system using principles such as:

  • Efficacy before efficiency: Striving for production efficacy (do the right things) rather than production efficiency (do things right) requiring a good understanding of demand.
  • Collective thinking and respect for people: the necessary reflection of the operators on their own activities and an organization founded on multi-functional teams.

Lean had to manage complex systems

However, despite its triumph over Mura and Muri, Muda is accumulating a series of errors: an exclusive focus on cost cutting, attention diverted away from reflection and on to demand, an approach centered on individual productivity placing individuals under pressure, disinterest in the learning system, topped with statistical calculations that fail to acknowledge the uncertainties and variabilities faced in practice. This situation is plunging organizations into unmanageable chaos with a multitude of plans, all of which add complexity to the complexity.

And this new look Lean is the passport to the failure of everything with greater production pressures and low work organization autonomy, a threat to the physical and psychological integrity of all those involved… and just 2% of lean projects achieve their objectives. (Industry Week, 2008)

“Twenty years on, I am astonished to see just how much effort we have put into eliminating waste (muda) and how little we have focused on mura (irregularity) and muri (overburden). Point-blank, irregularity and overburden are currently the leading causes of waste in our organizations. What is worse is that they are bringing back waste where managers and operational teams believed it to have been eliminated.”

— Womack

The impressive paper written by Philippe Lorino, X Mines scholar, professor at the ESSEC Business School, publicly available in the ESSEC’s open archives, puts forward avenues for progress by restoring Lean to its origins to bring back (common) sense.

“Seeking flow irregularities – trying to reduce complexity (Mura) – does not equate to denying it; eliminating overburden (Muri) does not conflict with the quest for productivity (Muda); complexity does not constrain us to type ‘A or B/not A’ binary options. It is possible, and may indeed be essential, to reduce and deal with complexity at the same time, to innovate and reproduce, to act without wasting time and to take time to think…”

— Philippe

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* La fuite managériale devant la complexité : l’exemple historique du ”lean management” – Philippe Lorino

* James P. Womack observed in 2006

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