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Why I F!cking Hate Lean

Lean manufacturing processes are a method for creating a more effective business by eliminating wasteful practices and improving efficiency. It’s more widely referred to as the principles that focus on improving products and services based on what customers want and value. 

Sounds fantastic, right?

Not quite.

The principles of Lean are certainly good. Lean was developed by Toyota to help with their manufacturing process for cars, and from that perspective, Lean makes perfect sense. Employees who were intimately involved in the process had the agency to solve problems and increase efficiency. It was all inclusive, taking into account all of the people who touched the product. I think that’s certainly the best way to do any sort of process.

This is all fantastic. So why do I hate Lean?

I don’t hate the concept at all. I hate how a lot of companies implement it.

Many companies go Lean just as a cost-cutting measure. Often, they’ll try to cut all of the things that they consider wasteful and make sure that things improve their bottom line without taking into account the people who actually do the work. But the people part of the process is just as important, if not more important, as the rest. If you miss that, if you do Lean in a way that eventually leads to more waste later because you’ve disenfranchised your people and/or your customers, that doesn’t benefit your business at all.


Here are the 5 key values of Lean, the incorrect ways I see them being used, and how you should actually use them to help your business:

1. Defining value. Value is what a customer is willing to pay for. Often, customers don’t actually know what they want and aren’t able to articulate it. A lot of the value can also come from uncovering what the folks who build or provide the product see day-to-day when they are building or providing it. Trying to develop both qualitative and quantitative measures of what customers want is really multifactorial and requires you to do an awful lot of research into what your customers are looking for, what your people who build or provide the product see, and what your initial interviews and workshops reveal. This is an iterative process that requires time and deep digging.

But in most enterprises, I see a lack of stomach in up-front investing in defining that value and the analysis it takes to do it right. When that doesn’t happen, there are no good measures of what success looks like.

In enterprises that do this step badly, I like to refer to this step as “incorrectly defining the end goal.”

2. Mapping the value stream. The goal here is to look at the customer point of view as the end point objective and successfully identify and document all the processes that get you there. If you haven’t defined the value accurately, you’ll be drawing a road map to somewhere that isn’t the end goal in this step.

This step is also where enterprises that do Lean badly tend to look for any part of the process that “seems” unnecessarily complicated and just cut it. They get obsessed with oversimplifying processes and it ends up costing them more money in the long run (even if it saves them money in the short run) because it becomes an excuse to get rid of staff or not buy new equipment and leave out steps that matter. The damage to an organization’s reputation and loss of profit will require transformational change later and it can take years to un-fuck what people fucked up.

In enterprises that do this badly, I like to call this step “cutting complexity to effectively cripple processes.”

3. Flow. This step is to ensure the remaining steps run smoothly without interruptions or delays after removing the wasteful steps. It dovetails with an analogy I often use: don’t mix your water and sewer pipes, it’ll pollute your water.

Ideally in a perfect Lean world, you’ve removed all the waste so there’s nothing but clean water flowing. But usually, when you’ve gotten rid of the necessary complexity in step two, you’re trying to figure out how to deliver your product or service with whatever truncated garbage you have left over. All the leftover crap rolls downhill to your customer. In enterprises that do this badly, I like to call this step “shoving a sewer pipe at your end user”.

You can see why it’s critical to clean the pipes up front. Good strategies for this are:

  • Making sure the steps you have are super well-documented, understood, and agreed upon by all parties.
  • Vetting the value stream with all the people who actually do the work and getting everyone on board with cutting the unnecessary step, or steps.
  • Reconfiguring when you’re documenting the processes to make sure everyone agrees with what the picture of streamlining involves.
  • Distributing work amongst your staff so no one person in the process is overloaded and there is no one single point of failure.
  • Creating cross-functional departments where your people are multi- skilled and able to be adaptive.

4. Pull. The goal of a pull system is to make sure you have the right inventory at your disposal when you need it. Just-in-time inventory means no one has to wait and no extra stuff gets wasted. With proper project management and procedures, the pull is created by the customer’s end needs.

I don’t tend to deal with physically manufactured products, but the analogy works on transformational technical projects as well. When you have to ramp up resources to work on different work streams at any given time, the funds to hire people and pay for resources need to be ready in advance. New people need to be hired several months early so they can ramp up their core skills and have an understanding that matches where you are in the project.

Often, I see this happen badly because so many organizations just throw people in the fire when they need them (or, even worse, decide not to hire more skilled staff to help at all). They waste money because they haven’t gotten people up to speed and it becomes a mess. In enterprises that do this step badly, I like to call it “paying pull process lip service and not doing it.”

5. Perfection. The whole idea behind Lean is continuous process improvement as part of the organization’s culture. What I see actually happening is that most organizations botch the first four steps of Lean we discussed above and, again, only pay lip service to continuous improvement. They half-ass documenting processes and implement half-baked, ill-conceived new processes that are “less wasteful, more profitable.” Then, they don’t do any meaningful/actionable post-mortem and don’t have the entire staff culturally involved with Lean concepts. Instead, they have a Lean team that looks at things but isn’t engaged on a day-to-day basis.

You need the whole organization buying into the concept, not just the Lean team. You need to be looking at procedures, examining what’s going right and wrong, checking KPIs, and course-correcting when things change. But when that doesn’t happen, things just stagnate for five years until a new transformational project happens, they fuck up Lean again, and the cycle repeats because they haven’t made the right culture changes.

When enterprises do this step badly, it should be called “not establishing and fostering the correct culture so problems continue to perpetuate.”


I see this time and time again, that Lean doesn’t end up achieving the ROI organizations want.

In the case of a transit organization I worked with, your transit drivers are the lifeblood of your organization. Because they are in unions that are often at opposition with management, management seems to be reluctant to ask those operators for their opinions about what they see during their service.

Along with not creating bus service that makes sense for the people they serve, this leads to service that is unnecessarily difficult or badly scheduled for the drivers. That leads to poor morale more than anything because drivers feel like they’re not providing the best service to customers and are often working shifts or driving routes that they get understandably disgruntled about. Those poorly designed routes can lead to traffic issues which can create pay issues which can lead to grievances with drivers and the union. By not listening to drivers about what’s going on in the community in order to make service as good as possible, management kills driver morale and sets themselves up for pay grievances from inefficient routes.

The transit organization struggled (like most organizations I see) to engage the people that do the work. Talking to customers isn’t the only thing you need to do, and sometimes you aren’t talking to the right customers.

As part of mapping out bus service, the organization would routinely talk to the municipalities the buses serviced and ask what kind of service they want. In theory, great. In reality, it ended up being a lot of upper-middle-class “Karens” complaining about all kinds of things that did not get to the heart of what the public actually needed. Who the organization actually needed to talk to were the people from racial demographics that weren’t usually listened to: the silent majority of folks who rely on public transit to get to their day-to-day jobs, the front-line responders, the kitchen workers, the people who do the work that makes everything go in a city.

If they had properly engaged the unions that operate the buses and actually asked (and listened to) the drivers on what they could do to improve the routes, those drivers would be able to candidly tell you where they hit traffic bottlenecks, where a lot of people tend to get on/off, where an additional stop would be helpful, and more. If they did that, they would better serve the community they’re supposed to serve, get better publicity in the media, and have better ridership because people would trust the service more.


Inherently, you want your employees engaged and working towards the same goal: positively affecting the bottom line, promoting growth, growing profit, and making sure the product is both exactly what the customers want and has positive public opinion. You want to make sure that people feel proud of the product they’re producing. The poor implementations of Lean I often see just create opposite results.

I think in the perfect world, Lean is great. In reality, humans get involved and do human things that screw up that perfect world. It’s the same thing as someone saying they have some sort of trauma to work through, but they don’t actually do the work to get past it. It’s one thing to acknowledge you have an issue and that it will take work to fix it, but actually doing that work is another thing all together. A lot of organizations, like a lot of humans, don’t have the appetite for the second part.

So that’s why I love the concept of Lean, but hate the execution.