The Perils of "Lean Relativism"

Reflection or hansei in Japanese, is a critical part of lean. Without purposeful reflection it is difficult to improve our value streams, processes or ourselves.

Socrates’ oft referenced, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” rings true within lean. But, may I be so bold to add a twist?

The examined lean life without an objective standard as a reference ain’t lean.

Why would I say such a thing? Let’s borrow a few concepts from moral theology. I know, I know, please bear with me.

Well, without objective standards we risk "lean relativism" under which there are no actions or behaviors which in and of themselves are lean or not. Essentially, it’s a view that lean principles depend on the individuals and groups that hold them.


A lot of folks can convince themselves that things are more than OK, even if they’re not. Nothing to see here, everything’s lean. Keep on moving. No change required.

That’s a recipe for disaster.

There are three schools of thought under the relativist moral methodology. They can apply to lean relativism.

1) Situationism. Here folks maintain that we can’t hold to any rules, or in this situation “lean principles,” that will apply in all circumstance. We just have to look at the concrete situation to really determine whether a given condition or action is consistent with lean or not. An example – due to the fact that the set-up is painfully long (our “situation”), batching is just fine. Wrong! Eliminate or dramatically reduce the set-up and endeavor to get batch sizes down to one or something darn close to one.

2) Consequentialism. This “ism” prescribes that a specific act is neither lean nor non-lean in and of itself, but becomes so on the basis of its consequences. The ends justify the means. One major problem is that when we get into this territory, it can be difficult to understand the consequences of our actions prior to taking them…especially if we’re in short-term thinking mode. Example – the value stream manager delays (for the third time) the deployment of an andon system because he fears the consequences for his overworked supervisors and himself. The anticipated frequency of line stops and the andon response time requirements would just beat his supervisors up. Lean principles would suggest that this is NOT the optimal decision.

3) Utilitarianism. Like situationism and consequentialism, no actions in and of themselves are necessariy lean or non-lean. Here it’s all about the greatest good for the greatest number. Think of it as consequentialism on a more corporate level. Leanness can be wrapped up within whatever maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Hey, it’s all about respect for the worker, right? Example – the lean answer often includes multi-process operations supporting continuous flow. However, this typically requires cross-trained operators. Well, clearly not everyone is cross-trained, wants to be cross-trained, and/or is capable of being cross-trained. It requires time, effort, change management, and sometimes hard decisions. (Try this in healthcare or transactional-based industry!) You can see where this may be going… OK, we don’t really need multi-process operations OR continuous flow. It’s too painful, for too many. Just build the standard work with the imbalances in work content (% load) and lots of standard WIP and we’ll continue on. Everyone is happy now, right?

Lean principles such as humility, respect for the individual, flow and pull value, assure quality at the source, identify and eliminate waste, create value for the customer, etc. cannot fall victim to lean relativism. That’s not to say that there is no flexibility at the system and tool level, but once one starts making trade-offs with fundamentals, things get out of whack, inconsistent, and confusing.

This is exactly why leadership needs to protect lean purity and defend the organization from the attacks of relativism. Folks need to be trained and actively coached. They must constantly reinforce their thinking and skill sets by seeing, doing, reflecting, and adjusting. And target conditions can’t only prescribe measurable performance levels, but also characteristics relative to things like continuous flow, level-loading, etc.

Without objective standards, we are at risk of never approaching true north. Or if we do, perhaps we approach it purely by accident, which means it will be near impossible to sustain and ultimately further improve.

I leave you with a brief story.

Even after 17 years, I vividly remember the renowned sensei’s three page letter to us. It summarized his initial observations of our operations and his suggested plans to go forward…if we were so committed. To me, it was a first step in a great journey. According to the sensei, there was MUCH opportunity and MUCH to be done. And yet, the lead operations executive wrote something within the margins of the letter, something that seemed utterly unencumbered by reality, “Maybe we are already world class.” Yup, I’m OK, you’re OK…

Related posts: Everyone Is Special, But Lean Principles Are Universal!, WWSD: What Would the Sensei Do?

There are 4 Comments

Andrew Bishop's picture

Ah, the moral philosophers.

I'll take Isao Kato any day, who says "proper awareness of problems and an extremely low tolerance for the current condition is a proper attitude and starting point for any activities in TPS or Lean."

"...extremely low tolerance for the current condition" just doesn't jibe with "Maybe we are already world class".

If you're satisfied with where you are, lean doesn't mean a thing.

markrhamel's picture


As always, thanks for the comment.

Well, I'm more into moral theology than philosophy, but Kato-san sounds like he hit the nail on the head!

Best regards,

John Hunter's picture

I am not sure I agree with the strong premise but a weaker version I do agree with. We water down principles to the level that they do not work. The principles at the foundation of lean work together to create a system that is effective. Leaving off (or weakening) parts of that system have consequences for the overall performance of the management system.

markrhamel's picture


Thanks for the comments. I certainly respect your perspective and your point that we attack the integrity and effectiveness of the system when we apply cafeteria-style leadership - I'll take a little of this, skip some of that, etc.

Best regards,