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For a while I have been thinking about the possible impact of using the name Lean to describe the activities or programme to transform an organisation into the new way of working and thinking. It felt serendipitous then, that shortly after pondering this I came across this interesting TED talk, by Mary Page Wilson-Lyons in which she spoke about how words affect the way we think. I thoroughly enjoyed this talk – it gave me multiple ‘Aha’ moments. She shared some profound examples which demonstrate how words affect our reactions starting with a cute story about teaching her daughter to share.

She then mentioned a scientific study made by the Psychology Department of Stanford University which showed that words, especially metaphors, can sway our thinking. Participants in this study were given short paragraphs about rising crime rates in a fictional city. The results showed that the participants given the story in which crime was described as a “beast” preying on a community were likely to recommend more enforcement and stronger punishment to address the problem. On the other hand participants whose script framed crime as a “virus” infecting a city were more inclined to recommend preventative measures through social reforms. Of course this was a sophisticated experiment conducted by professionals who are familiar with psychological concepts like anchoring and priming (which most of us may only be faintly aware of) but it serves to remind us to take note of the power of words.

I remember someone asked me whether lean is an acronym for something and I answered “no”. I then explained the history of the name based on the literature that I have read. To my knowledge the first book to introduce us to the word lean within the context of organisational management was ‘The Machine that Changed the World’ by James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos. According to this book the “machine” that was changing the world was the ‘lean management system’, and they defined a business system as a way of thinking about how people work together to create value. The full term used in the book was Lean Production as it was used to describe the shift from Mass Production.

The term “lean” was used as result of the comparison between the traditional mass production system and this new way of working. The book informs us that one of the MIT researchers in the study group, John Krafcik, chose the word “lean“ to describe the new production system because it used less of everything in comparison to mass production – they found that it required half the human effort, half the manufacturing space, less than half the inventory, half the time, etc. See image from the book alongside.

What I find important for us to grasp is that using half of the resources was a result and consequence of the new way of working and thinking about work. If an organisation believed that by just halving its resources it would make it “lean”, and it continued working in the old way, it would most likely fail. Suppose it halved the resources and then looked for a new way of working and managing; the chances are that it would still fail. We first need to develop a new way of working and over time make the shift of creating more value with less resources. What is also key is to realise that the organisation practicing this new way of work did not call it lean, but instead it was their way of managing and working – the Toyota Production and Management System.

What I am proposing is that we need to realise that lean is an outcome of the new way of managing and working – it is not something that we do, it’s an outcome we work to achieve. The process of determining whether we achieved it requires that we do a comparison of the organisational results under the new way of working in contrast to the old way of working. Let’s assume we have a simple company that sells Product A and we embarked on a new way of working.

Lean Outcome Option 1

Lean Outcome Option 2


In year 1 the company produced 100 units of product A and in year 2 it adopted a new way of working and increased production to 120 unit without additional resources. In this case we can then realistically say that in comparison to year 1 this company became relatively lean. The company uncovered additional capacity which was hidden by wastes inherent in the old way of working and therefore created more value using the same resources. If in year 3 the company still produced 120 units it would have failed to uncover more waste and failed to achieve a lean outcome. Therefore the quest to achieve lean outcomes is an ongoing journey. It is also important to realise that the additional capacity released from the elimination of waste could be used to create more value to customers through innovation. In year 3 the company could choose to continue aiming for increased production of Product A or it could innovate and offer a new offering, Product B, which meets the customers’ previously unmet needs.

Coming back to the importance of language and how it impacts our thinking, I would like to share my observations and reflection on the possible effects of using the name lean in organisations that are new to this way of working. The first thing relates to how the word is used when introducing lean to an organisation. In my experience working at Lean Institute Africa, many people with whom we spoke thought of lean as a project. I can’t count how many times people asked me: “When is this lean coming to an end?” Secondly, it was seen as something that is additional to the normal work. The activities were not seen as the new way of working and managing, but rather seen as extra work on top of their normal workload. Again, countless times people told us how busy they were and that they could not give us time to ‘do lean’, not realising that lean management has the capacity to improve processes to free up their time to do more. Thirdly, when using the word lean, the impression that is made is that you are bringing something external and foreign to the organisation. The organisational leaders and members fail to realise that the aim is to change the organisational DNA and culture from within. Fourthly, lean was seen as something that is done by some people and not everyone. This was probably due to the fact that the change was mostly driven through pilots and the language used did not make it clear to every employee that what was being piloted was in fact the new way of working to be adopted by everyone. Related to all the above was the observation that most leaders believed that they could delegate lean to someone other than themselves, since it was seen as a ‘project’. It is therefore no surprise that the new way of working could not be sustained beyond our visits. Of course I am pleased to say there have been exceptions, where lean management has shown to bring DNA changes to organisations, and the key difference was where the new way of working was championed by the senior leadership.

Does using the name lean make it difficult for people to realise that it is not a project but a new way of working and managing? If organisations accepted that lean is an outcome of a new way of working and managing, does it matter whether they still use the name lean to describe what they are doing? Do you think that the name for a new way of working could have an impact on sustaining and creating a sense of ownership of this new approach? If organisations understood the objectives of the new way of working and managing, it would create more value for clients, while reducing the waste in their systems. Would it still be seen as a responsibility of only some members of the organisation? What does your organisation call its way of working and managing? Is your approach successful in your organisation and do you think language has a role to play in a shared understanding of your approach and its success?

I would love to hear your views on this topic.

Warm regards,

Tshepo Thobejane
Lean Institute Africa


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