Tag Archives: Lean

The Lean Debate – A “Wicked Disease”

John Seddon, a British occupational psychologist, has been a lightning rod for Lean promoters (which he refers to as “tool-heads) over his criticism of Lean.

Seddon bases his own work on Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System that Lean is also based on.

Seddon argues that industrial processes don’t adapt well to the service sector, where standardization often gets in the way of meeting the need for a variety of approaches, calling Lean a “wicked disease.”

“Lean as ‘tools and projects’ appeals to managers,” writes Seddon in one of his newsletters. ”Managers think they know what their problems are and they think tools training and projects will be useful. Managers like the idea (promoted by the lean tool-heads) that services should be standardized (big mistake). If they do get improvement it is marginal, often they end up worse but they don’t know because they are still measuring the wrong things (lean tool-heads don’t question targets or activity measures for example, indeed they don’t question management philosophy).”

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The trouble with Lean

Are you Lean, becoming Lean, doing Lean or thinking Lean?

Almost the entire province of Saskatchewan has gone Lean.

On the surface Lean offers everything front line workers should want. It is a system that addresses work process and reduces waste. It looks at the appropriate use of tools, including us humans. It allows for continual process improvement with a focus on quality. It involves and values front line workers in process design. Some managers claim it even saves money that can be reallocated elsewhere.

So why is it we hate it so much?

Lean is a system of continuous process improvement that originated at Japan’s Toyota in the 1930s (sometimes misidentified as the Toyota Productions System – TPS), although founder Taiichi Ohno admits that he generously ripped off Henry Ford for many of his process ideas. Others say the origins go back thousands of years to Africa. The term Lean itself came from a 1988 article on Toyota’s management system by an MIT student.

While initially geared to assembly line manufacturing, Lean has expanded in recent years to include the service sector.

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In the age of Lean, why are health care providers telling their workers to shut up?

As a public sector union we are often left to speak for those who can’t. Members often face reprisals and discipline from their employer if they speak publicly about problems in public service delivery for which they have first-hand expert knowledge.

When they feel they cannot speak out, we all lose as both funders and users of these services.

Badly run organizations often go hand-in-hand with a culture of fear among employees. This was a lesson learned at Windsor’s Hotel Dieu hospital, where a dysfunctional staff culture led to major issues and incidents around quality of care for patients.

Supervisor Ken Deane (now the CEO) specifically noted that among management there was a culture of “fear of reprisal for speaking up” at Windsor Hotel Dieu.  Just imagine what it would be like to be a front line worker.

The irony of such workplaces is not lost on us amid all the talk about empowering front line workers through such continuous quality improvement processes as Lean. It also calls into question the government’s commitment to transparency and accountability when front line staff are effectively gagged.

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