Lean vs. growth

Run-about factory

Run-about factory

The lean manufacturing model, when applied to knowledge work, is a race to the bottom where humans are reduced to robots and creative output to widgets. The work is process-mapped to death, and management demands “faster, better, cheaper.” The concern is not for the experience of the end customer or the growth of the company, but rather “what can the customer live without so that we can save more money?”

From lean.org, “…lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.” It comes from the Japanese manufacturing industry (championed by Toyota), and the basic tenet is to create more with less, and to reduce waste.

Linchpin by Seth GodinSounds great, right? It isn’t for knowledge workers. The employees in a factory-like organization avoid taking risks, are not allowed to be creative in their solutions to problems, and have low morale. Seth Godin refers to having a “factory mentality” vs. being indispensable in his book Linchpin* (a career-defining must-read in my opinion). Godin shares the following story in the book and it sums up the institutionalized, woe-is-me mentality of many “factory workers” who won’t allow anyone to get ahead if they cannot.

Business professors Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad wrote about an experiment conducted with a group of monkeys. Four monkeys were placed in a room that had a tall pole in the center. Suspended from the top of that pole was a bunch of bananas.

One of the hungry monkeys started climbing the pole to get something to eat, but just as he reached out to grab a banana, he was doused with a torrent of cold water. Squealing, he scampered down the pole and abandoned his attempt to feed himself. Each monkey made a similar attempt, and each one was drenched with cold water. After making several attempts, they finally gave up.

Then researchers removed one of the monkeys from the room and replaced him with a new monkey. As the newcomer began to climb the pole, the other three grabbed him and pulled him down to the ground. After trying to climb the pole several times and being dragged down by the others, he finally gave up and never attempted to climb the pole again.

The researchers replaced the original monkeys, one by one, with new ones, and each time a new monkey was brought in, he would be dragged down by the others before he could reach the bananas. In time, only monkeys who had never received a cold shower were in the room, but none of them would climb the pole. They prevented one another from climbing, but none of them knew why.

A linchpin applies unique skills, expertise, or knowledge to become indispensable to the organization. He or she is an artist, a master of his or her craft. That’s what I want to be. Not a cog in a machine.

Are you working in an office “factory job?” Are you ready for a change or am I all wrong? Let me know by commenting below.


Photo Creative Commons License John Lloyd
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  1. “Give me liberty or give me death” -Patrick Henry
    Good stuff that has implications in perhaps every area of life.

    1. I suppose I could have told more of my story in this, and the fact I worked for approximately 8 years in a lean office job – we did kaizen’s, we had visual control boards, we had stand-up meetings, we had A3s, etc etc. I could also concede that this is one experience, with one management team, but it does align with Seth Godin’s views. I am not referring to lean in manufacturing, as I have no experience there, to clarify.

      Would you care to expound on your critique?

      1. What I find striking in your story is that you never mention what your office was supposed to be doing, which suggests to me that the “Lean” approach was the deployment of generic tools under the mistaken assumption that they would help regardless of whether the office was architecting skyscrapers or processing insurance claims.

        First, you have Toyota, the company where Lean was invented as a means of becoming a better car maker. It worked. Then you have had many people who used Toyota’s reputation to peddle simplistic, dumbed-down copies of Toyota’s system under the Lean label. It didn’t work, and they are giving Lean a bad name.
        Then you have had more people further simplify and double-dumb down the approach to port it over to offices, and it seems to be what you experienced.

        The starting point should be the work: what it is, how much of it there is, and how it varies over time. Then you look for ways to improve effectiveness, which means producing more relevant, higher-quality output faster. Finally, you worry about efficiency, which means eliminating waste in the process. And waste is by definition stuff you are better off not doing, like printing and disributing reports nobody reads.

        My recommendation to you is to go back and study the original, rather than the output of a multi-stage telephone game.

        1. Thanks for jumping in, Michel – like I said to Mark below, maybe I did experience a unique flavor of lean. Maybe.

          I agree you should analyze work and look for efficiencies…that is assumed, and should not be the main goal of a knowledge organization. We’ve passed that decade. It’s time to focus on innovation, creative ideas, disruptive technologies, etc. A race that has no top…not a race to the bottom where work is perfectly easy, cheap, and fast. Once you’ve ingrained a “waste-free” culture in an org, it’s time to move on and stop spending 80% of your effort on 20, 10, or 5% returns.

      2. As somebody who has worked in manufacturing and healthcare, I’d like to comment.

        I’ve criticized Godin for his overgeneralization about “factory thinking”

        Back to Lean… I think you are unfairly using just part of the LEI definition. A fuller definition of Lean, from their website:

        “Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.
        A lean organization understands customer value and focuses its key processes to continuously increase it. The ultimate goal is to provide perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process that has zero waste.”

        Lean is a very customer focused methodology – improving quality and value to the customer.

        A major WEAKNESS in the LEI definition is that is really misses the mark on employee engagement and participation.

        My focus is the application of Lean to healthcare improvement – ultimately one of the most important types of knowledge work.

        The Lean process and approach to management does a FAR better job of engaging everybody in improving patient care. Before Lean, people in hospitals complain they are robots and they are never listened to. Lean Healthcare create a workplace where people are more engaged and more satisfied in their work… because they are finally being listened to. It’s not a race to the bottom.

        Lean isn’t “faster, better, cheaper.”

        The focus and priorities with Lean are, in this order:
        1) Make things easier
        2) Make things work better
        3) Make things work faster
        4) Make things cheaper (without hurting quality)

        Higher staff engagement leads to better quality, which leads to lower cost. That’s the model in healthcare and I think that extends to other types of work.

        Mark Graban
        Author, “Lean Hospitals”
        Co-author, “Healthcare Kaizen”

      3. One other thought – an overriding focus of Toyota (the home of “lean”) is employee development. Toyota doesn’t want people checking their brain at the door even if they are working in production. It’s the “Thinking Production System” as some at Toyota say… so that would certain extend to the office.

        The news stories about Foxconn factories having workers doing the same work every three seconds all day… that’s not “Lean,” by the way.

        The two pillars of the Toyota management system are “respect for people” and “continuous improvement.” Having somebody due monotonous work isn’t respectful and it’s not Lean.

        1. Thanks for jumping in, Mark. I don’t totally agree, obviously, but you apparently do lean better than I experienced it. I enjoyed implementing Lean processes for a couple years, as the results were measurable. The net out was what I described above though, whether that because it was “telephone” lean or not.

          I am pretty sure Seth is referring to knowledge work, not factories as whole.

          1. Seth is referring to knowledge work adopting “factory thinking” — i.e., thinking from factories. I wonder if Seth has actually ever been in a factory?

  2. Emily Stauch says:

    I could be working in an office “factory job,” but I refuse. My team could easily fall into analyst that merely churn out reports and actuarial proof for the product manager’s whims. My team and I chose to innovate, brainstorming solutions to insurance problems, and we are fortunate enough to have a boss that supports or desires to not be monkeys.

    We’ve used the Lean process to streamline our processes with good results. I think it has a time and place, but it does always have to be tempered with reasonableness and customer’s needs.

    1. Good thoughts! I do firmly believe a role/job can be what you make of it. We also had good results with lean in terms of cost-savings, but the overall toll on team morale and creativity were not worth it in my mind. The removal of waste from processes should be second nature and a means to an end, not the end itself. Then innovation can become the focus.

      1. Marc Hauge says:

        I’m in the midst of a heavy LEAN culture in healthcare and while I see some value, it is the heavy hand of the delivery that stifles innovation, creativity and lowers morale. Again, LEAN was designed and is best suited for manufacturing. The adaptation to the “knowledge worker” seems forced and unnatural to me. In our hospital, the directors and managers are getting burned out fulfilling the LEAN quotas, it has become busy work for people and has taken hours out of their week, probably hours they could be home with their spouses and families, enjoying their lives so they can come to work the next day fresh and happy. The problem is, no one will question the culture and pretend to engage in it because people know that is what is expected and rewarded.

  3. There is plenty to criticize of poorly executed management with the name “lean.” The things you criticize are not about lean. They are about outdated management thinking that control and workers checking there mind at the door are good things.

    Lean believes workers (even workers some “knowledge works” believe should be treated like cogs in a machine) should be treated as people with minds. Lean believes those minds need to be tapped – whether they are factor workers or knowledge workers.

    I discuss some of these ideas in


    and in posts linked to that. You may also be interested in



    I think you would find lean thinking very much in line with you goals. The application you will see at many places sadly, would rightly annoy you.

  4. Lean, when it’s laid bare, is about one thing: the control of waste. Everything else: kaizens, visual scoreboards, whatever, are merely tools used to achieve the aim.

    Your statement that Lean is about “what can the customer live without so that we can save more money” is somewhat misleading. True, if there are unnecessary processes in place that add more value than the product requires (for example, using high-quality paper for a newspaper), then you can indeed stand to gain by reducing that, WITHOUT the customer ‘living without’ anything at all.

    Lean can be applied to a multitude of different workplaces, but of course, they will all operate in different ways, and focus on different aspects, depending on what it is they want Lean to do for them. You suggest that Lean will get rid of your ‘linchpins’, and I would question why that’s a bad thing, from a management perspective.

    Linchpins are real ‘stick-in-the-muds’ for organisations, you can’t get rid of them because of some specialised knowledge they hold, and when (not if) they become aware of this, morale will drop amongst the other staff. It’s all well and good to aim to be a ‘linchpin’ personally, but why you would want them in an organisation, especially at an entry level, baffles me.

    With respect, this article smacks of ‘Lean-bashing’ for the sake of making an altogether different point about individual knowledge in the workplace. I think there’s an argument to be had there, but I don’t think Lean needs to be involved.

    1. Waste is something you want to eliminate, not control, but the focus on waste elimination needs to be set in context.
      The point is to improve all dimensions of performance simultaneously. Improving one at the expense of others, for example improving quality but increasing costs and delays by doing it, is easy but is not a genuine improvement.
      The real challenge is improving quality, increasing productivity and decreasing lead times, all at the same time. It is what you accomplish by eliminating waste. I call it the end of management whack-a-mole (http://bit.ly/RerElf).
      A fundamental premise of Lean is that it is always possible. (http://wp.me/p1UTIj-5p)

  5. I actually work in a factory lol and we were handed out a paper on lean manufacturing… It’s quite sucky… Even in the factory I don’t think it needs to have the lean mentality. We do custom work for navy subs and because everything’s custom I don’t like the lean thing… I wanna get my work done eat a snack in between talk to friends come in at 9 instead of 7am. I accomplish a lot more that way. I can’t stand being watched either.

    1. Interesting perspective! Humans like to be treated like humans, regardless of the type of work…makes sense to me.

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