November 3, 2021

The diversion of Lean Management or the managerial flight from complexity

By Patrick Chabannes

Lean production is a work organisation model that encourages the development of proactive, competent employees who are ready and motivated to think and suggest improvements.

Hiding behind the magical power of measurement with inherently misleading data, management is unable to deliver performance in a complex world of increasingly complicated organisations. 

Didn’t Lean Management provide the keys to performance?  

In the 1990s, didn’t the sciences of complexity make a major contribution to the renewal of management control in France by breaking away from instrumental visions and identifying the role played by control, its tools and its practices in learning about performance?

Reminder, Lean for Dummies: a base of TPS (Toyota production system), a dose of MIT and a touch of continuous progress theory (PDCA loop: Plan-do-Check- Act) with three key performance issues: 

– Muda – eliminating waste, 

– Mura – analysing and controlling demand variability,

– Muri – eliminating equipment and employee overload. 

But policy makers and researchers have shied away from the complexity…

The original lean rules may seem counter-intuitive (e.g. to control cost, you need to maintain spare capacity), because they focus on controlling the high complexity of business systems. However, business (and public) managers 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 deluding oneself with the illusions of control and by seeking salvation in methods that reduce business systems to equations relating input measures, output measures and profitability.
Teachers and researchers in management, particularly in control, bear their share of responsibility for this drift. Have they not too often neglected the complexity of human activity systems and overestimated the power of static, top-down modelling ?”

…so Lean Management has been hijacked

Muda (waste) has devoured Lean, which has become the solution for stressing flows and chasing waste, while forgetting its other two foundations: mura (flow irregularities) and muri (oversizing).

Lean has been killed by a formula: “Doing more with less” through systematic tensioning.

Our western point of view of productivity planning has forgotten about Mura and Muri forgetting that Lean, like TPS, was about dealing with complexity and not about reducing it to a pithy, murderous formula forgetting the key role of rganizational slack.

The imperative of eliminating work overload (Muri) led Toyota to plan for overcapacity of up to 50% : this is the so-called 8-4-8-4 system (8 hours of production, 4 hours to complete other tasks or deal with unexpected peaks). This shows the importance of organisational slack, the opposite of systematic stress.” 

But the original Lean is a method based on three inseparable axes aimed at creating more value 

(better meeting customer needs) with less effort, stress, workload and resources, requiring a continuous rethinking of an organisational model that continuously redesigns the collective system of activity through principles such as 

– Effectiveness before efficiency: Seeking productive effectiveness (“do the right things”) and not productive efficiency (“do things right”), which requires a good understanding of the demand. 

– Thinking collectively and “respect for people”: the necessary reflexive return of operators on their own activities and an organisation based on multi-functional teams. 

Lean was supposed to manage complex systems. But Muda, the winner of Mura and Muri, has made a number of mistakes: exclusive focus on cost reduction, attention diverted from thinking about demand, an approach centred on individual productivity that puts individuals under pressure, lack of interest in the learning system, and, on top of all this, static calculations that ignore the uncertainties and variabilities in the field, which cause organisations to fall into chaotic, unmanageable states, with a number of plans that add complexity to complexity. 

So the ‘lean new look’ is a passport to failure for all. 

The intensification of productive pressures, low autonomy in the organisation of work, threat to the physical and psychological integrity of the actors…and 2% of lean projects manage to achieve their objectives. (Industry Week, 2008)

James P. Womack noted in 2006“Twenty years on, it is striking to me how much effort we have put into eliminating waste (muda) and how little we have paid attention to mura (irregularity) and muri (overload). In short, irregularity and overload are now the primary causes of waste in many organisations. Worse: they bring waste back to the very place where managers and operational teams thought they had eliminated it.

The magnificent paper by Philippe Lorino, X Mines, professor at ESSEC, made available to all within the Essec open archives, proposes promising avenues for progress by reconciling Lean with its origins in order to regain (good) sense. 

“Looking for flow irregularities – trying to reduce complexity (Mura) – is not the same as denying it; abolishing overloads (Muri) is not contradictory to the search for productivity (Muda); complexity cannot be confined to binary options such as “A or B/not A”. It is possible and even essential to simultaneously reduce and deal with complexity, innovate and reproduce, act without wasting time and take the time to think…”

Reference : La fuite managériale devant la complexité : l’exemple historique du “lean management” by Philippe Lorino, X Mines, professor at ESSEC, 

Lectori salutem, Patrick Chabannes