Real Lean vs. Fake Lean: How to Spot the Difference

by Joe Aherne

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In the world of business, where innovation and efficiency are top priorities, the concept of Lean has become more than just a movement—it’s a blueprint for success. Organizations across the globe are racing to embrace Lean principles and methodologies in their pursuit of operational excellence. But there’s a catch: You may be adopting “fake Lean” instead of “real Lean.” This article differentiates the two, shows you how to identify the signs of fake Lean, and helps you steer your organization toward more authentic Lean transformation.

What is Fake Lean?

At the core of Lean, the emphasis is placed on ensuring that people—employees and customers—are at the forefront of the transformation to eliminate waste, continuously improve processes, and shift focus to delivering more value. 

Fake Lean superficially embraces these core principles without truly committing to the underlying philosophy. Organizations practicing fake Lean tend to focus solely on surface-level practices, like visual management boards, daily stand-up meetings, and Kanban boards, while neglecting the holistic understanding required to reap the full benefits of Lean.

Fake Lean may look like:

  • Lack of genuine respect for people in the organization.
  • Poor commitment to the deeper values of Lean.
  • An acute focus on cost-cutting at the expense of quality.
  • A rigid adherence to Lean tools without fully grasping the underlying concepts or the “why” behind it.
  • A failure to engage the entire workforce in the Lean journey. 

Fake Lean provides the appearance of improvement without delivering the sustainable results that authentic Lean brings.

Coworkers arguing. This could be a side effect of practicing fake Lean.

What is the Difference Between Real Lean and Fake Lean?

The main difference between real and fake Lean is that the latter fails to understand and embrace Lean’s guiding principles. Here are some examples where the two may differ:

  • Mindset and Culture: Real Lean encourages continuous growth and empowers employees. Fake Lean, on the other hand, overlooks these cultural aspects and focuses solely on tools and methodologies, neglecting the human element.
  • Waste Elimination: Where real Lean focuses on all aspects of the organization, valuing the input of everyone involved, fake Lean may prioritize cost-cutting without a holistic view of waste.
  • Customer Focus: Real Lean places the customer at the centre, striving to understand and meet their needs. Fake Lean prioritizes short-term goals and cost reduction over customer satisfaction, potentially compromising quality and value.
  • Continuous Improvement: Real Lean embraces Kaizen, the philosophy of constant growth. It seeks to evolve and optimize processes over time, involving employees at all levels in the journey. On the other hand, fake Lean treats the process as a one-time project rather than an ongoing journey.
  • Respect for People: Real Lean values employees as the source of innovation and knowledge. Fake Lean fails to respect or engage employees effectively, resulting in disengagement, resistance, or a lack of commitment.

How to Tell If Your Team is Practicing Fake Lean

Identifying whether your organization is stepping into fake Lean territory is crucial in getting back on track with your transformation. Here’s how to spot fake Lean:

  • You emphasize Lean tools without understanding principles.
  • You focus on cost reduction without an equally strong emphasis on customer satisfaction, quality, and long-term sustainability.
  • You are resistant to change and are content with the status quo.
  • Employees are disengaged or excluded from decision-making and problem-solving.
  • Your team doesn’t pursue incremental changes and improvements regularly.
  • Customer needs and feedback aren’t central to your decision-making process.
  • There is a pattern of dismissing or ignoring employee concerns.
A team working together. Empowered teams is a strong emphasis in real Lean.

How to Move Away From Fake Lean Towards Real Lean

Once you’ve identified the signs of fake Lean within your organization, the next step is to shift your commitment and strategy toward more authentic Lean approaches:

  1. Begin with a cultural transformation. Foster a culture of continuous improvement and respect for all people. Empower open communication, employee engagement, and a growth mindset that values feedback and ideas.
  2. Invest in Lean education and training for your team members at all levels. This ensures everyone understands the underlying principles and values, not just tools.
  3. Refocus your organization on the customer. Seek to understand their needs, preferences, and feedback.
  4. Implement Kaizen philosophy. Encourage small, continuous improvements in processes, products and services, and involve all employees in this journey.
  5. Institutionalize change by making it an ongoing process, not a one-time project.

Start Your Real Lean Transformation Today

At the end of the day, there are no cutting corners when it comes to adopting Lean mindsets and practices. Recognizing the signs of fake Lean is the first step toward the organizational shift you’re looking for. By genuinely embracing a cultural transformation, continuous learning, respect for all people, and a customer-centric approach, you can navigate from fake Lean to real Lean and pivot your business appropriately.

At Leading Edge Group, we help organizations like yours on this journey. With a strong emphasis on placing your employees and customers at the forefront of the movement, our training resources are designed to ensure you embrace real Lean so you can achieve sustainable success and operational excellence. Contact us today to get started.

Joe Aherne Photo
Joe Aherne

CEO of Leading Edge Group

Joe qualified as a Certified Public Accountant in 1982. It was a decision that reaped great benefits for Joe, providing him with an international recognized qualification which allowed him to follow in his father and grandfathers’ footsteps who had both worked and lived abroad. Having qualified as a CPA, Joe took up financial positions in the Middle East and UK.

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