Traditional Lean?

Twice in the last month I’ve heard the phrase “Traditional Lean” used in public presentations.   In neither case did the presenter explain the expression, but traditionalleanone displayed a slide with a Venn diagram showing the overlap between Lean and Six Sigma.  I suppose this means that he defined Traditional Lean as meaning Lean plus something else, in his case, Six Sigma.   For both presenters, however, the word “Traditional” implied passé.  They were moving on.  Lean, or Lean-Sigma, if you prefer that definition of “traditional”, was a dated process, in need of enhancement or even replacement.  In the 1980’s, I referred to Lean and Six Sigma respectively as TPS and QC Tools.  Each was derived in part from W. Edwards Deming’s post-World War II reconstruction efforts in Japan.  In that pre-Lean era, there was little literature about TPS and few consultants.   Being one of those folks old enough to remember when there was neither Lean nor Six Sigma – at least in name – I find this latest buzzification of Lean to “traditional Lean” amusing.  It’s certainly not the first time we’ve been encouraged to employ alternative approaches to productivity improvement:

By 1985, when American manufacturing was reeling from declining market dominance, an HBS article entitled “MRP, JIT, OPT, FMS” began what has since become a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms each describing a supposed elixir to the problems of rising costs and disappearing customers.  The article is worth a read, if only from the standpoint of showing how focused we were at the time on better methods for scheduling production and reducing inventories.

JIT was the popular surrogate for TPS in the mid-80’s, often juxtaposed with MRP (Material Requirements Planning.)  Back then, the pejorative “traditional” adjective was used to describe push-production of which MRP, a network scheduling system, was a part; we called it “traditional manufacturing.”

FMS, flexible manufacturing systems, was a techno alternative to TPS that proposed superior flexibility through use of robotics and automation to move material and information through the factory.  In a notorious example of FMS, General Motors attempted in the 1980’s to create fully automated facilities.  All told, GM spent 90 billion (yes, billion) dollars to “modernize” its operations.  While TPS sought to elevate employees, GM tried to automate them out the picture.   Ultimately, GM’s lights-out people-less plants were deemed unworkable and were mothballed.

As for OPT, Optimized Production Technology, this was another alternative to TPS from Eliyahu Goldratt (author of “The Goal”) to develop a computer-assisted queuing model that scheduled around bottlenecks.   After taking a couple of Dr. Goldratt’s classes in the late 80’s, I decided that if I could actually define all of the parameters needed to run OPT, I would know so much about my plant that I wouldn’t need any software to schedule around bottlenecks.  I’ve always been an Eli Goldratt fan, but this particular TPS alternative, like MRP and FMS was yet another software/ technology solution to a problem that went far deeper than automation of information and material flow.  Interestingly, all of the alternatives to TPS noted in the HBS article, proposed information and production automation as viable solutions to flagging productivity and competitiveness.   Even TPS, was thought to be only a scheduling model.

In the 1990’s, along with renaming TPS to Lean, came more techno solutions: Agile manufacturing, boasted Lee Iacocca at Chrysler, would “leapfrog” Lean.   Agile, described at the time as the next step “beyond Lean,” promised faster response and greater flexibility through a combination of IT integration and physical re-organization.  It was big on concept but light on details.  At the same time, Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, popularized yet another improvement method, 6s (Six Sigma), presented at first as an alternative to Lean and later through the marketing genius of a large consulting firm, mashed into “LeanSigma.” The mid-90’s, also brought us business process reengineering, BPS, an IT-driven methodology aimed at radical process change.  This top-down change method had a de-humanizing impact on organizations; a condition that many understand today is a major deterrent to continuous improvement.

And all of these software-assisted tools can be rolled into one mother acronym, ERP, which is MRP plus all of the above except TPS.   Readers of one my recent posts will recall ERP referenced as “the granddaddy of excuses” for not spending time on continuous improvement : )

So what does all of this have to do with “traditional Lean?”  Here’s my take:  Over the last three decades, organizations have spent too much time searching for technical alternatives or supplements to Lean without first understanding Lean basics.   I’ve listed just a few of these experiments: MRP, FMS, OPT, Agile, BPS, 6s, ERP.   Perhaps you can add some others.  While there may be merit to some of the thinking behind each of these concepts , they have unfortunately  diverted attention and resources away from the hard work of learning people-centric TPS.  I think “traditional Lean” is TPS.  It’s what Lean was before we consultants got our mitts into it.  Call me a TPS ideologue.  I’m good with that.   Do you agree or disagree?  Share a thought.


And don’t forget:

  1. Today is the last day to get the early bird price on registration for The Northeast Lean Conference coming October 4-5 in Worcester MA. Visit to learn much more.
  2. We’re still accepting list items for Kanban misconceptions from my last blog post and will randomly select a winner for one free registration for the conference on Friday of this week. See Eye of the Beholder to add your comment.
  3. GBMP’s calendar of Shingo Institute workshops is jam packed through October. Check it out here and join us for a workshop or two soon.

11 thoughts on “Traditional Lean?

  1. Jerry

    An interesting blog. My belief is that the consulting industry thrives on reinventing the wheel and every once in a while they get lucky. We must stay alert to improvements in systems, technology and techniques and while we call Lean a science, even science evolves.

    I was a staunch MRP practitioner and rejected Lean. After all, how did Kanban deal with dependent demand and long lead times? Even today I think there is a place for MRP and master scheduling but I do appreciate the merits of Lean.

    1. Mark Graban

      There is a place for MRP and that place is long-term planning. Toyota didn’t reject MRP… Kanban is the short-term execution system rather than scheduling everything through MRP or MRP-II, right?

  2. Mark Graban

    I always roll my ears when I hear something about “beyond Lean” because those who are trying to “go beyond” usually haven’t gotten very far with Lean.

    Makes me think of Dr. Deming and the need for “constancy of purpose.” We keep practicing Lean, rather than being done implementing it.

    Does “traditional Lean” mean “Lean without Six Sigma” to some of those presenters?

  3. haganone

    Great post.

    Words like “traditional” are used to tarnish on any established methodology, even if successful. That way there is room for the “new and improved!” we’re all programmed to be looking for. Plus, if you embrace the continuous improvement aspect of Lean, then it’s constantly new anyway!

  4. Daniel Markovitz

    $90 billion?!?!? The number is mind-boggling. Imagine the good GM could have done for employees’ lives with that number. I suspect that Roger Smith didn’t miss any annual bonuses or pension contributions during that time.

    1. Mark Graban

      Yup. $90B over 10 years. This is a good read about Roger Smith:

      “To satisfy his curiosity about competition from Japan, Smith agreed in 1984 to a joint manufacturing venture with Toyota Motor Corp. at a mothballed GM plant in Fremont, Calif. But the key lessons about Toyota quality that his executives learned weren’t what he wanted to hear. “He thought Toyota possessed some kind of magic,” said Maryann Keller, a former auto industry analyst and author of “Rude Awakening,” a book about the automaker published in 1990. “The Toyota joint venture taught that GM management was the problem.” The trick to cost savings wasn’t simply getting rid of people. GM had to motivate workers in factories and yes-men in executive suites to take more responsibility and improve output. GM quality and productivity were second-rate. I tried and failed to find out whether Smith ever read “The Machine that Changed the World,” a book written in 1990 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers”

      I recently heard a story from somebody who was in a meeting where W. Edwards Deming came to GM and presented to Roger Smith. Deming basically got kicked out and banned for saying the problem was senior leadership.

  5. William Ryan

    For much greater detail on Lean or fake Lean I would recommend one to look at the many books written by Bob He is one of the best authors in the voices of Lean.

  6. Pingback: GM’s CEO Roger Smith Thought Toyota Had Magic, But This Was the “Secret” | Lean Blog

  7. jtgormley

    Coincidence?…I was surprised this morning to read a very good journal article about patient engagement, which unfortunately used the term “traditional lean” to describe a failed approach whereby “lean experts” tell staff how to change and improve. I agree that would fail, but I haven’t experienced that coming from lean thinkers, usually it comes from non-lean leaders. Before my beginning my lean journey in healthcare, I worked for a major ERP software provider as a developer and marketer, and then later in the CRM (customer relationship management) software business. The experience taught me to be very skeptical of technology and automation when it’s used as a panacea. In healthcare today we have the equivalent – EMR / EHR software, costing mid-sized health systems $100s of millions and offering hoped-for benefits of efficiency, productivity and improved outcomes. As with ERP, most adopt the processes built into the software rather than design improved processes. When will we learn?

    1. Mark Graban

      I saw that too… I wish they had labeled that as “fake lean” or something instead of “traditional lean.”

      It’s a shame that healthcare, generally, hasn’t learned the lessons from ERP… there are some in healthcare who get it and screamed “Fix the workflows before you add technology,” but they were mostly ignored.


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