An Open Letter to John Shook

Congratulations on your assumption of leadership at the Lean Enterprise Institute.

The Lean Enterprise Institute has a deservedly unique place in the community of people working to learn and apply the Toyota Production System. The LEI, and the precursor work at M.I.T., by Jim Womack and others, has been largely responsible for moving the Toyota Production System from the domain of a few consultants into mainstream thought. The term “lean,” for better or worse, is now firmly established all in discussions about business management and production efficiency.

From my perspective, though, the LEI is at a crossroads. While what I am offering here is my opinion alone, this platform has given me great opportunities to connect with people across the spectrum of the “lean community.” This is only my opinion, but it was not formed in isolation.


In the early days, the LEI – and Jim Womack especially – took on an almost evangelical role. The initial workbooks – Learning to See, Creating Continuous Flow, Creating Level Pull, Making Materials Flow, had the effect of creating a near canonical definition of “lean.” We could (and did) debate it, but it was pretty clear what the LEI meant by the word.

The message of those early workbooks, carried forward from Lean Thinking, was clear: “We are still learning this, and sharing it with you as we go.”


Today, however, out here in the world of steel-toe shoes, safety glasses (and yes, scrubs and surgical masks), the LEI has developed a reputation for being insular – not particularly open to the idea that people outside of the LEI’s inner circle might have gained deeper knowledge that moves beyond the message of 1999-2001.

In addition, the LEI seems to have drifted from being a standard bearer with a crisp message to becoming a specialty publisher, much like the Productivity Press of the late 1990’s.

If the role of being a specialty publisher is what the LEI is striving to become, then that is great. But it is nothing special and, over time, I feel the brand will dilute and the LEI’s name on a book will mean little more than McMillan, Wiley or Free Press. Even today, I (and others) no longer assume that just because the LEI is publishing a book that it is automatically worth reading or using as a reference.

But the biggest tragedy is lost opportunity to lead.

Today, even though the founders coined and popularized the term, the Lean Enterprise Institute no longer represents the final word of what “lean” means. Nobody does.

Is “lean” a synonym for the Toyota Production System or Toyota’s management system? With all of the reference to Toyota, I would think that is the intent. But there are many well qualified experts out there who make a good case that the LEI’s publications and message are, at best, a subset of TPS. Others argue that “lean” and TPS are fundamentally different in some way.

The result is that “lean” means whatever someone with an opinion says it does.

The LEI has chosen not to engage in this debate. That is well and fine, but at the same time the message emerging from Cambridge is increasingly unfocused – as the shift (drift?) is made from “standard bearer” to “publisher and promoter.”

Therefore, I believe that in the eyes of the world, the LEI no longer owns “lean” and chooses (by action and inaction) to not define it.

Other organizations, such as the AME and SME, are claiming to hold canonical definitions as they work to establish formal “certification” programs to compete with the ASQ’s ownership of “Black Belt.” (I often wonder if Taiichi Ohno would have been able to get a “lean certification” by the standards offered by these organizations.)

The original academic discipline of continuously developing, testing, pushing, revising the current understanding – the very foundations of the LEI out of M.I.T.-  seems to have frozen in place – as though the initial research that led to the LEI’s formation is regarded as the end-all.


So I have some questions.

One of the central tenants of “The Toyota Way” is challenge.

What is the challenge for the LEI? What is that ideal state that the LEI is striving to become?

Is it to be a successful publisher and promoter of books? Or is there still a sense of a higher purpose?

If it is the later, then I would like to suggest that this higher purpose is not felt “out here” in the world.

I, for one, would like to see the LEI return to a position of being the baseline authority. But this means giving up the idea that there is a static understanding which has already been grasped and simply needs to be put into practice. There is simply too much new knowledge being gained for that position to hold.

Ironically, the Toyota management system itself is built on foundation of striving to learn what is not yet understood. It would be appropriate for the LEI to embrace the same thinking. Just as “no problem is a big problem,” I would argue that “We already know” means “we have stopped learning.”


So what would that look like?

Define “Lean” in non-abstract terms.

To regain leadership, the first step would be to describe the target of “lean” as a testable (and refutable) model. When we say “Lean,” it should define what are we striving for.

What does it look like when the organization is truly engaged in continuous improvement? This isn’t about describing tools, or results, but rather the key elements of a system and how they interact with one another – including the process of management and leadership.

What if we put John Shook, Mike Rother, Steve Spear, Jeff Liker, Michael Ballé, Art Smalley in a room – real or virtual – with a skilled facilitator and a task to try and isolate the five or six key operational elements that are in place in an organization that is truly “getting it.” Each of these people brings a significant piece of the puzzle. Could they fit them together?

The idea would be to develop a solid, testable, working theory of what “Lean” means as a general-case model of the Toyota Production Management System. This would be the LEI’s official position. Sure, others have their views, but this is ours, and this is how we are testing it. Put a stake in the ground, then be willing to continuously test it, review it, and update it.

I certainly have my own ideas on what those key elements are are, but would  love to facilitate that conversation and see the results.  🙂

Let’s acknowledge that we learn about TPS by continuous application of the scientific method – research, developing and testing hypotheses, and this is not static knowledge. We have nothing but our best current understanding, and as we apply it, we learn what we do not know. True senseis are those who have mastered, and teach, the process of learning.

Define a process.

Having a theoretical base is not enough. For it to be practical, we also must learn how to put it into practice. We are dealing with two separate things here.

One is the working theory of how TPS works as a management system.

The other is the approach used to deploy that process into an organization that has a long history of not doing it. In this, we must move outside of Toyota’s world and into the very messy world where the people who are practicing these things are isolated from one another, and have little or no coaching or even emotional support.

This means developing another theoretical base – one for deployment.

Lean Thinking outlined a sort-of process with five steps, but I contend those simply describe a sequence of tool deployment and do not address a management system. In those five steps “Pursue perfection” is a core tenant, but has never been well described – at least not until the publication of Toyota Kata. It is time to reflect on the last 15 years, review the approach, and incorporate what has been learned since.

Further, enough companies have tried the sequential-tools-implementation approach over the last couple of decades, that we have a pretty good idea that it doesn’t work very well. But have we truly examined why, beyond the platitudes of blaming “insufficient management commitment?”

Learning to See actually started this process. It outlined a pretty good process for gaining “current condition” understanding. I would certainly be comfortable in saying that if this process does not work to that end, it is more because of flawed application than a flawed process. But subsequent workbooks started down the path of describing the mechanics in ways that largely left out the people and the leadership processes.

So let’s return to the original concept of setting out a path for learning.

Then continuously test

Now comes the tough part. There must be an acknowledgement that, as much as this process captures what we have learned, it is likely imperfect. But we do not know where or how the flaws will show up. They will only become apparent in practice and application.

The only way to widely and continuously test a theoretical base for deployment is to fully engage a population of practitioners. These are the people who are taking the TPS theory and applying it to uncontrolled environments “in the wild” – the actual factories, hospitals, service providers out there.

To be a TPS-based process, the deployment process itself has to have mechanisms for built-in checks, both in application (are we doing it right, if not what is stopping us?) and outcomes (did it work, if not, what actually happened?).

The community of practitioners are going to be the ones on the virtual assembly line, with one hand on the andon cord. How quickly can the community be engaged to respond to issues, swarm the problem, restore to the standard, and then seek to understand what was not previously understood?

What I do know is that the LEI has one of the most active technical discussion forums out there. A webinar attracts thousands of listeners. An email with a link generates a huge spike in hits to the target site. How can that network be organized, focused and harnessed?

I don’t actually know. But if the LEI were to assume a position of leadership and establish a good vision and progressive target conditions to develop the community of practitioners into a team, I am willing to wager that the kaizen process, if properly applied, would work for that as well.

Paradigm shift

This is much more than organizing conferences, webinars, and publishing books written by consultants. Truthfully, anybody can do that, and frankly, there are more than a few who do those things better than the LEI does.

But the fleeting opportunity is one to regain a position of leadership, and truly engage people in ways no one has ever done. But isn’t that the core challenge of the Toyota approach in the first place?

10 Replies to “An Open Letter to John Shook”

  1. This is provocative, Mark, and I want to think about it more. However, a few comments come to mind. I have not found LEI to be all that open, but at the same time, I have not availed myself of the forum and website, which I know to be very rich. For openness, I think Mark Graban is doing a good job with LEI’s healthcare arm. Mark is also very approachable and welcoming, and practice-oriented rather than academic. I don’t know how he does a daily blog, but it keeps the message visible.

    Now to babble a bit:

    At a higher level, you are creating a vision of a meta-organization of lean, made up of the practitioners and the wise men (should we add Gwen Galsworth or Jean Cunningham?), who would apply lean to a larger issue: how to foster the small starts lean is making in government, banking, tool and die shops … everything? Organizations all intersect as a mega “supply chain”, so how could lean thinking work in an entirely new way on the big system?

    I don’t think we can define lean. It would be like defining zen or enlightenment. We can develop a feeling for it, and the term “the kaizen mind” might come close to a consciousness that an enlightened organization might strive to create. How would it swarm the problem of growing lean on a much larger scale than we see now?

    We also should follow what Mike Rother brings into Toyota Kata — what is neuroscience revealing about the way the brain/mind works whether one is alone or in an organizational system? How could that reveal how to engage the people who seem unreachable? What fears are causing them to defend themselves against the ideas? What’s behind the arrogance we are frustrated by? Is there a psychology to resistance?

    To not learn from neuroscience, anthropology, and research into learning itself is to wrap ourselves in an insular focus on certain kinds of processes and not the meta-process of how people process ideas.

    If Toyota has collected a beautiful cache of knowledge and discovered how to use it to master and remaster a living system, we have a model. But the extensive practitioner community you refer to must have also found little ecosystems with other ideas that evolved independently. Perhaps not with the coherence of Toyota, but with elements that a community could put together to make something even greater.

    From the learning to see the many little problems we stumble over every day, to the growth of the kaizen mind in the thousands who might swarm them, to the loftiest thinking of how it all works together, is there a kind of collaboration that the ideal LEI could create that would study, test, and validate a theory of why lean does not penetrate organizations on a large scale and how to overcome that obstacle.

    To me, that would be a higher purpose.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and detail comment.
      Yes, it is intended to be provocative. And when I say “insular” I am not addressing any individual in the organization, but rather the organization as a whole.

      I am not sure “lean” is so abstract as “zen.” Maybe it is… but right now, we don’t know. Spear does a pretty good job dissecting what seems to be consistently behind world class results in The High Velocity Edge (formerly “Chasing the Rabbit), and Jim Collins has put forth some pretty good models as well.

      “Defining lean” to me would not necessarily be the end-all, but rather it is establishing a refutable prediction – “These are the things we should find in organizations that are succeeding at this.” Maybe the words and organization would vary if different groups attempted to do the same thing, but I think it is not so abstract as a state of zen.

      And if it turns out that it is a “zen” thing, then we still need to revise our approach, because clearly the mechanics are not going to get us there.

      Applying what we learning about coaching, and about how the mind works is implied. (I highly recommend reading The Talent Code that Rother was touting.)

      Your note opens up a lot of possibilities, and I appreciate that. I tried to be pretty linear here, perhaps I am simply setting an initial target objective heading in that general direction. I wanted to state something that was concrete enough to start working on rather than stick an idea of perfection into the ground and say “go there.”

      In the end, though, all I am asking is for this premiere organization to step up into the role and make a declaration that we might rally around.

    1. Hello
      Thank you for the correction, I will fix it. I have the utmost respect for what Jim Womack has done for this community – he essentially created it – and the contribution he has made, and continues to make.

      I believe my history with comments will demonstrate that I am open to correction (as here) as well as substantive challenge to points I am making.

      However it is equally difficult to take someone seriously when they feel the need to leave a semi-angry comment that dismisses the entire content for an unfortunate misspelling while hiding behind an anonymous server.

      The intent of the post is to spark some discussion and dialog across our community. So far, the other comments (and a couple of back-channel emails) I have are both supportive and constructive. If you feel comfortable decloaking (or even if not I suppose) I invite you to engage and participate.

  2. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts. There’s a lot here to digest — good and not-so-good — but it’s all welcomed input (no problem is problem), and a change in leadership is a good time to get it. We asked for and got some feedback through our Forums, but I hope more Lean Thinkers like you and Karen will use this space too. I know John Shook already has done some reflection on the current state and possible future states of LEI and the lean movement. I don’t want to speak for him at this point but will make sure he sees the discussion. I’m sure we’ll all have more to say and share in the near future. Thanks for getting the ball rolling here.

    Chet Marchwinski

  3. Mark,
    Thank You.
    Great post. I have actually always treated the LEI forum the way you describe. It has always been the place where a theory is thrown out there and those of us “in the wild” try it out and give feedback. I think of what you are describing as “The Big PDCA” of all pdca’s. It’s one big continuous improvement plan with the finite goal of the perfect manufacturing model. You are right, kaizen should always start with standard work and a definition of Lean is that standard. As long as everyone understands that the purpose of a standard is to start continuous improvement, that would never be a problem.

    I was actually a little disheartened when I realized a couple years into using the forum, that it has very little to do with the leadership of LEI. I had this impression that LEI leadership was a part of the debate and that they were learning with us. After a while, I realized that they were still going to the same places to learn (namely Toyota). That’s not a bad thing, but it’s only one test of the lean theory. Whatever lean is defined as, it is being tested everywhere. I thought that LEI leadership was learning all the things the LEI forum was learning. That doesn’t seem to be true.

    The problem with the forums is that they never establish a standard. There are a ton of improvement ideas out there, but there is very little conclusive experimentation. One person will strongly say one thing and another person says another. There is no resolution because there isn’t a sound scientific approach to determine success. So the same problems get solved continuously over and over again.

    I have always thought that an interactive Wiki from LEI could solve a lot of this problem. A wiki would allow for continuous development of a body of knowledge on lean. A wiki might allow for specific examples to be referenced as people learn. The purpose of leadership at LEI would be to ensure the content was scientifically peer reviewed. A wiki would allow for continuous input from everyone but also establishment of standards. The learning process would allow for continuous learning on a consistently growing body of knowledge.

    Kris Hallan

    1. Kris –
      Great idea about a peer-reviewed wiki… that I could see that not only creating definitional content, but useful presentation materials, training guides… a lot of possibilities there.

      Hmmm… it would take me about 20 minutes to set that up here… 😉

  4. Mark,
    I just wanted to chime with Chet and thank you for your thoughtful post. While I certainly can’t speak for John Shook, or anyone else here at LEI, I do appreciate the post.

    I believe you raise some interesting ideas about possible future or ideal states, but I think perhaps a more firm understanding of purpose and value is required – what is our purpose, are our actions aligned with that purpose, and what do our customers value? I hope that this post and other discussions inside and outside of LEI will help us clarify all that in the coming months. In the meantime, thank you for having the courage to post the open letter and to reflect on your past and current experiences with LEI.
    Lean Learning Materials Manager

  5. Sorry if that seemed angry, I was simply pointing out the error. When I read things online, part of my process is trying to understand the credibility of who is writing. Spelling Womack’s last name wrong made me wonder (not knowing you) your depth of involvement with lean.

    I generally don’t post my name on the web/blogs for privacy concerns. Not trying to be “hiding.” Many people post that way on blogs and message boards.

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