Lean Thinking in Fifty Shades of Gray

Is Lean thinking an all-or-nothing proposition, or are there acceptable shades of gray?

Lean thinking in 50 shades of grayThere seems to be a pretty hard-core group of Lean advocates out there who divide the application of Lean into two segments: “Good Lean” and “Bad Lean.” In this world view, things are black or white: Lean thinking is either practiced correctly or incorrectly. There are no shades of gray.

But is that true? I find it hard to comprehend. To me, the very nature of Lean methodology is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Lean thinking, like almost everything else, is ever-evolving.

At the core of Lean philosophy is the principle of continuous improvement. I can imagine that Darwin himself might say the Lean method emulates natural selection. Species either adapt, through continuous “improvement,” or they die.

But just as species don’t evolve in a single step, neither do organizations. So it seems unreasonable to expect that a company choosing to adopt Lean methods will go from “No Lean” to “Good Lean” in one fell swoop. Adapting to a Lean culture, and implementing all of the processes that would constitute “Good Lean,” should be allowed to evolve—even if it means slogging through a gray primordial abyss for awhile—right?

I would say yes, as long as everyone stays focused on the big picture—maximizing customer value while minimizing waste.

Here at SmartDraw we embrace Lean thinking, but admittedly operate in the gray area. Many of us wouldn’t know a Kaizen burst if we backed into one in our Corolla. But our particular shade of gray Lean is helping us improve in those big picture areas, just as exercise improves your health even if the technique isn’t perfect. For example, Lean thinking helped us to develop Automated Value Stream Maps—because we see no reason for taking eight steps to accomplish something that can be done in five. That’s taking a Lean approach to a Lean tool. Perhaps we accomplished it while practicing what purists might label “Bad Lean,” but the result was a good thing. It produced a better tool for our customers (most of whom, I’m sure, practice only the very best Lean).

Are there acceptable shades of gray within the journey from “No Lean” to Good Lean,” or is everything that falls within that area simply, “Bad Lean?” I contend that as long as the organization is committed to the highest principles of Lean—continuous improvement focused on the best possible customer experience—then this is “Good Lean.” It’s just performed in evolving shades of gray.