In this letter to the Editor, Keivan Zokaei, Visiting Professor at Buckingham University, and Donna Samuel, Head of Lean Academy at SA Partners, both in the United Kingdom, reflect on the need for the creation of an Institute of Lean to support and commission research and to bring some much-needed clarity in the confused qualifications landscape.

The Chartered Institute of Lean. It does not exist! At least, not yet. But let us envision, for a moment, the notion of the Lean Institute. What sort of gaps would such an entity fill? Some of the obvious benefits would include: a global reference for continuous improvement qualifications and certifications; an international hub for vital standards to assist individual and organisational lean journeys; a provider of information, knowledge and wisdom about lean; and finally, a strong advocate for lean thinking.

The lean movement has become widespread and far-reaching since it first entered the management lexicon some 20 years ago. In 2005, Jim Womack, one of the authors of the seminal books, The Machine That Change The World, commented: “I am delighted with the spread of lean thinking far beyond the factory and far beyond the high-wage economies to every corner of the world and to every value-creating activity. My greatest concern is that we bring the best methods to bear and create the maximum amount of knowledge exchange across the global Lean Community so these initiatives will all succeed. Life will be better for all of us if they do.”

We would argue that lean has penetrated so many organisations and individuals that there is now a need for greater professionalism amongst the lean community. For example, organisations in the process of hiring continuous improvement experts currently have little ability to establish how well-versed such experts really are in the key aspects of lean thinking. Of course, there is always the option to rely on the applicants’ self-proclaimed qualifications or to base the selection on third party recommendations. However, a Lean Institute could provide a central hub and yardstick for assistance in such decisions.

On the other hand, lean practitioners who wish to progress their career in lean and continuous improvement currently struggle to understand the best qualifications for them to pursue. They find it difficult to determine which sources are the most reliable ones from which to glean knowledge. When it comes to criteria against which to assess practical skills and theoretical knowledge, there currently exists no single point of reference.

In the past few years, the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME), the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), The Shingo Institute and the American Society of Quality (ASQ) have joined all forces to offer a standard certifications for lean thinking. This represents a great first step. However, for the moment practitioners remain bewildered by too many options. Similarly, few years ago, the Lean Enterprise Research Centre (LERC) at Cardiff University, in the UK, launched the Lean Competency System (CLS). This offers certification for training providers and provides practitioners with a ‘seal of approval’ for their individual achievements.

Although LERC has now ceased to exist as a separate entity, the LCS certification can continue under the auspices of the parent university. LERC used to be one of few centres of excellence around the world that had both the credibility and the authority to certify practitioners completing degree and non-degree courses. LERC acquired its international credibility by employing a “critical mass” of lean gurus such as Dan Jones, Peter Hines, Nick Rich and John Seddon – but to name a few. More importantly, LERC had the authority to issue academic qualifications due to the “Royal Charter” status gained through the membership of Cardiff University. However, LERC has been a university research centre and not a professional body and more recently these central figures have dispersed.

Today, more than ever, there is a need to create an all-embracing institute for lean thinking.

Not just to qualify lean implementations or to certify lean experts, but to enhance the body of knowledge around lean thinking by commissioning important research and to work closely with universities to position lean course material in their curriculum. The Lean Institute will need to have sufficient global credibility for the majority of respectable institutions, active in the field of lean, and for lean gurus/influencers to coalesce. Action towards this end should not be diverted by a debate as to whether lean is academically mature enough to be regarded as a standalone discipline. In reality, even the parent disciplines, from which lean is derived (such as Operations Management, Supply Chain Management and Systems Thinking), are barely considered standalone scientific disciplines.

Lean is a body of knowledge that is currently not underpinned by professional governance. It is our belief that the creation of a Lean Institute is a practical necessity. Our experience has shown us that there is not enough time to wait for slow natural evolution cycles needed for academic acceptance, we need only to consider Mechanical Engineering.

The practical need for lean is an imperative in our current economic predicament. The economic reality of most sectors of our economy is such that we all need to do much more with much less, in order to have any real chance of recovery. And that means getting leaner. Lean thinking emphasises “doing much more” rather than “with much less”. Even today, however, lean remains a counterintuitive concept for most MBA managers still following the same 20th century managerial recipes that got us into this economic mess.

This is precisely why lean needs strong advocacy, with credibility and authority to influence the fundamental ways in which managers think. For continuous improvement institutions this means collaborating closely. AME, SME, ASQ and The Shingo Institute have already set a great example. For academics, lean thinkers and lean authors this means abandoning turf wars to work together. This is going to be much more difficult. We implore all lean enthusiasts, practitioners, experts, academics, and students to support the notion of The Institute of Lean.