Lean Must Do No Harm

Progressive Lean management has long been misunderstood and, as a result, misapplied by managers, resulting in bad outcomes for key stakeholders such as employees. Two main points of misunderstanding are: 1) to recognize only the “Continuous Improvement” principle and ignore the “Respect for People principle,” and 2) to cherry-pick Lean methods and tools thereby altering the context for their use, impairing their effectiveness, and generating bad outcomes for people. Please, never forget this: It ceases to be Lean management the moment it is used for bad. Lean must do no harm to people – employees, students, payers, communities, suppliers, etc.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for people who are unfamiliar with Lean management to discern the difference between Lean done right and Lean done wrong. Alternatively, people exposed to Lean done wrong quickly formulate negative opinions of Lean that are difficult to overcome. In some cases, people express their dissatisfaction by writing about it, and by doing so they may accurately represent what they have experienced (Lean done wrong), but are not able to describe Lean done right and inadvertently misrepresent Lean management.

What follows is an example from New York City K-12 educational system where team teaching is not working out as planned. This outcome is extrapolated to describe the many ills associated with Lean production and the harm that will likely come to teachers (and the impact on students and parents). These include the six criticisms of progressive management that workers have expressed for over 110 years, and which management usually fails to address: de-humanize them; speed them up and burn them out; de-skill them; take away their knowledge; take away their creativity; and cost them their job. If one or more of these are the actual outcome, then we know for certain that managers misunderstood Lean and practiced it incorrectly.

In the article, “Lean production: Inside the Real War on Public Education(Jacobin Magazine, September 2012, and as re-published in LaborNotes, 8 April 2014), the author, Will Johnson, criticizes Lean production. He says this approach to “capitalist production” has as its objective is “to achieve maximum efficiency, management deliberately stresses workplace systems to the point of breakdown.” True, if managers ignore the “Respect for People” principle. False, if managers don’t ignore the “Respect for People” principle.

He then criticizes important intangibles that are lost as a result of “value-added assessment:”

“Another hallmark of lean production that’s made its way into public schools is value added assessment… In lean schools, value is “specified” as test scores. In a lean school, teachers are managers who supervise the flow of value through their students, whose job is to produce test scores as efficiently as possible. Unless they contribute to the production or flow of value, abstract values like emotional and social development, safety, comfort, and joy are all considered waste.”

If this is actually happening, then school administration is responsible for this terrible outcome. Remember: Lean must do no harm.

Later, Johnson criticizes me by saying:

“Value added assessments are then used to impose rankings upon teachers. Rankings are another key element of the lean production philosophy. As lean management guru Bob Emiliani puts it, “The final element of… evolving human resource practice was… an annual forced ranking of all associates.” Forced rankings will certainly sound familiar to anyone who’s been following the recent attacks on teachers from New York to California, where politicians and media outlets used test-based teacher rankings to publicly humiliate teachers—even when those rankings are statistically meaningless.”

Mr. Johnson wrongly suggests that this is my view. Personally, I am a critic of forced ranking processes that do harm, based on my own experience with them. I was describing The Wiremold Company’s approach to performance appraisal in the book, Better Thinking, Better Results (p. 123), which is not as characterized by Mr. Johnson.

Johnson then says:

“Public humiliation is certainly useful for lean managers who seek to place constant pressure on their employees so that, as Womack and Jones write, they can “do more and more with less and less.” The primary goal of forced rankings is, however, to shrink the workforce and see how far remaining workers can be stretched before they crack. Emiliani advises managers to “develop an action plan” for the “bottom ten percent” of workers, and if there’s no measurable improvement in performance, “the associate would be subject to involuntary separation.” For the best of the workers—more work!”

Mr. Johnson wrongly suggests that it is me who gives such advice to managers. As author of the book, I was describing The Wiremold Company’s approach to performance appraisal. Notably, Mr. Johnson ignores the effort that Wiremold managers made to help employees improve their performance so they would not be let go (p. 123). Remember: It ceases to be Lean management the moment it is used for bad. There is no place for public humiliation, for placing constant pressure on employees, for eliminating employees, or stretching employees until hey crack, as these are inconsistent with the “Respect for People principle.”

I have no experience in Lean management applied to K-12 education. But people who do tell me that just about everything in The Lean Professor, intended for university teachers, applies to K-12 teachers as well. In it, you will find the “Respect for People” principle featured prominently, precisely to avoid the kinds of outcomes that worry both me and Mr. Johnson.

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