Having been involved with TPS and lean thinking principles and practice for nearly 30 years, I think I have come across – and indeed for a short time maybe believed – all the myths about lean. Let’s examine some of them in the order in which I have heard them.

Lean only apples to automotive….

It only works in a Japanese culture….

It only applies to repetitive work….

It only applies to manufacturing….

Fortunately, there are many well-publicised examples of lean being applied successfully in many industry sectors and countries that contradict all the above.

It’s about process improvement, so our CI department can implement it…

This misses the point that in an organisation becoming lean every single person should be using the countless problems that arise in performing day-to-day work to identify root causes and developing countermeasures.

I’ve got an empowered workforce – let them get on with it….

Ignores the fact that in a lean organisation, every person understands exactly how what they do daily impacts on business objectives and works to improve their attainment. And there is very close monitoring of progress towards objectives at all levels of the organisation, with PDCA problem solving and countermeasures being employed where necessary.

It’s a project methodology….

Loses the opportunity to ensure every single person is involved actively in improvement on a never-ending basis.

I can introduce it by diktat…

Lean only works if people are convinced of the need, their experience shows it actually improves life for them, and if they are encouraged to solve their own problems as much as possible. The directive approach to management needs to be replaced by a coaching approach to allow people to develop their lean skills.

Value stream mapping is just process mapping with another name….

People who say this often focus entirely on the work flow, at a very detailed level, completely ignoring the associated information flow. Experienced value stream mappers will know that often major improvements in value stream performance are achieved as a result of improving the information flow as well as the work flow.

It’s about/we can use it to cut heads…

Organisations that try to use lean to reduce payroll numbers do so only one time. Respect for people, a foundation of lean, disappears, and no further cooperation can be expected from employees.

I can delegate this to others while I focus on the strategically important stuff….

All the great lean examples have a common characteristic – a chief executive who leads the lean journey by example.

It can’t improve knowledge work….

Often said about the work of designers, doctors, IT systems developers etc. However, John Toussaint of the ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value in USA has found that surgeons can apply standard work to their procedures.

In their book Lean IT, Steve Bell and Mike Orzen make a distinction between processes and practices, the latter being “non-routine, highly variable, loosely defined and requiring a degree of judgement and experience to carry out.” They state that lean can help the design of knowledge management systems to manage both unstructured data and structured data that will support and help improve practice (or knowledge) work.

If we understand lean management as applying PDCA by everybody at all levels of the organisation and focus effort on the three aspects of purpose, process and people, perhaps there will be fewer myths and more action.