It was brought to my attention from a variety of sources that companies during the “great recession” and the subsequent recovering economic period have targeted becoming “lean”.  As a big advocate of lean management practices, I want to belt out a hymn of Hallelujah but am afraid the news is actually quite unsettling.

Becoming lean has translated into parting ways with the often-embattled middle management. Now, I am all for removing those who do not contribute, but blindly chopping staff in order to improve operations is not the pathway to nirvana. I believe this has been tried before as “cutting your way to profitability”, but now we have a new marquee title to umbrella the practice (that recession thing again).

Lean has been promoted with a tag line of, “do more with less.” The unfortunate interpretation – in order to get to all those elusive technology initiatives to instill efficiency – companies are choosing to lose staff, claim “lean”, and everybody will simply work harder to greater effect at producing more deliverables.

Those companies continuing to treat IT as a cost center always capable of being trimmed back should not be surprised when technology does not produce innovation and competitive advantage. Frankly, achieving either takes strong leadership, bright people working in coordination, and a relentless pursuit of the highest priorities aligned with organizational objectives.

Lean is More Than Getting Thin

It takes cultural change if not an entire paradigm shift to truly achieve the benefits of lean. The goal should be to get more out of the talented and loyal employees whom show up every day to find solutions to meeting business objectives.  Not more as in working harder, but more as in benefiting from their knowledge and perspective.

The first problem: does everybody understand the business drivers and not just the requirements handed down through the various channels. Unless everybody (and that includes the technology team) can make day-to-day decisions based on real knowledge, you can never get to the core of lean.  It might be easiest to think in terms of fluid management or distributed decision making.

And, it is imperative to remove every distraction, time waster, and annoyance not directly related to focusing on the aforementioned business objectives – what lean disciples refer to as reducing Muda (a Japanese word meaning “futility; uselessness; idleness; superfluity; waste; wastage; wastefulness”). Notably, this is a horrible oversimplification purely provided for dramatic affect. The art of “going lean” is to step back objectively and evaluate every single company activity to determine if it is part of the necessary core to achieving company strategy. Question every meeting, every document creation, and every other aspect of operations.

If a company can collectively learn to operate under this principle, they can effectively become lean. But, this cannot possibly be achieved without the help of a few, bright, strategically-minded middle managers to lead the charge.