Sarah Lethbridge, Lean Services Manager at Cardiff Business School, responds to Keivan Zokaei and Donna Samuel’s opinion piece “The Institute of Lean.”

In the last issue of Lean Management Journal, Keivan Zokaei and Donna Samuel suggested that there was a need for an Institute of Lean, a global entity which would have the ability to act as the one leading superior authority on lean thinking, which individuals and organisations could visit to be assured of the quality of their knowledge and to seek ‘wisdom’ and advice to guide them on their lean work.

Whilst I support such a notion in principle (I welcome any attempt to encourage academics, lean thinkers and lean authors to ‘abandon turf wars to work together’) I would also like to suggest a few words of caution about the development of such an establishment, which would, in effect, attempt to offer the answer to what it means to “be lean.”

I first heard the word lean in 2005, shortly before joining the Lean Enterprise Research Centre in Cardiff to work as a researcher, recruited to investigate how to adapt what was then, largely, a manufacturing-based improvement methodology to the world of service. As I started learning about lean I realised that there had been a gaping hole in every experience of work that I had had thus far. In all of my previous jobs, my opinion had never been sought as to how I could get better at doing my job. Learning about lean was a revelation (and still is) as I began to realise that lean was really just about learning at work.

It was my privilege to work with individuals such as John Bicheno at the Centre, a true “lean guru” defined by his belief that there is still always so much to learn. John taught me an immense amount and regularly bounced into the Centre invigorated by a new book that he had just read, keen to share an exciting revelation with his colleagues. Knowledge in the lean thinking community moves so dynamically, new thoughts and thinkers enter the arena all the time from other disciplines and schools of thought – my fear is that an ‘Institute’ might become inflexible to these new ideas, and become so convinced of its own importance that it did not allow the movement to move as fast as it has.

Critics might suggest that the movement has moved too fast, that the term has become an amorphous mass relating to “anything good” within business. My response to that point is, so what?! As the lean services manager at Cardiff Business School, it’s my job to help organisations to embrace lean ideas so that they can be the best organisations they can be, but I also realise how clever these organisations are and how much they have to teach me. I relish the opportunity to blend knowledge that organisations such as Nestlé and Principality Building Society have taught me into my understanding of lean, I think it makes me a better lean thinker.

Here at Cardiff Business School, we remain dedicated to advancing knowledge in this area. We know that in order for lean be successful and sustainable, it needs to be applied using a contingent approach, an approach that’s right for the organisation and its employees.  That’s what our Lean Competency System has been designed to try to accommodate – difference. Integrating the activities of the Lean Enterprise Research Centre within a well-respected business school provides scope for more expansive thinking and new ideas, drawing upon the multi-disciplinary nature of the organisation.

I would hate an Institute of Lean to become a “superior”, inflexible organisation that was not accepting of difference and was not happy to continually change and revise what it recognises as a lean approach. My fear is that such a body might, although perhaps not intentionally, constrain an evolution of ideas. The heated debates that occur frequently within the lean community, although frustrating at the time, perhaps are actually essential, in order to encourage people to think.

I am committed to advancing lean knowledge, and so, if an Institute of Lean will provide an open opportunity to celebrate difference within lean, show me where to sign! We just need to be careful that we don’t lose what makes the lean movement special: creativity, innovative thought and challenge. We must ensure that these things are not crushed in an attempt to provide clarity and esteemed approval.