Lean organisations are fragile organisations

Cover photo by Latit.

What is lean?

A Lean organisation has removed any and all inefficiencies in it processes. The ideas behind Lean come from the Japanese Car manufacturer Toyota. Back in 1948, they noticed they had quite a lot of overused storage (for resources and waste), and a overburdened production process. Part of the solution was to have as little as possible resources on-site and set up supply-chains to provide only what they needed to keep production going. This improved their production process, but also reduced their need for storage. Saving costs throughout the business. All by optimizing efficiency.

Later this way of thinking was adopted in the US and started to be called Lean.

The core of the issue

First off, in my opinion, Lean as way to increase efficiency in a business is very effective. And I personally stand behind a lot of the underlying principles. For instance, as a software developer and UX designer I use kanban boards (a part of Lean) in my daily work to keep track of tasks and see if they are being delivered on time. And in other ways I have seen it applied successfully in the organisations of clients.

But there comes a point in the process of making an organisation Lean where you risk making it too fragile by over-optimising processes. The danger then is that it is dificult to see when this happens, especially from a management perspective.

A good example of the dangers of going too Lean can be found outside the world corporations, business and organisation. In the world of pigeons.

Everyone knows pigeons (especially if you live in a city), those silly looking cooing birds that will eat anything, breed like crazy and are everywhere. The reason that they are everywhere is that they are not optimised to do anything really well. They are generalists. Reasonbly Ok at a lot of things, but excellent at nothing.
There used to be another species of pigeon that lived on the island of Maritius. It was called the Dodo (you probably now where this is going). On the island it had no natural predators, so there was no need to fly up in the trees for safety. So to preserve energy the dodo lost it's ability to fly, become flying was simply inefficient.
It also evolved to lay just a single egg, because there was no risk of predators of stealing them and again it was more energy efficient to lay one instead of several eggs.
So through the forces of evolution the dodo became more and more, in a sense, Lean. All was good for the dodo for ages, but when the first humans appeared they saw the big flightless bird as easy meals and within a decade or so the dodo was hunted to extinction.

The story of the dodo teaches us that when something is optimized for efficiency. It leaves it defenseless to unexpected outside forces (in this case, us). The dodo, unfortunately, was at the mercy of the unguided processes of evolution, but an organisation is not.

When it is good and when it is bad

During the years, the ideas of Lean have found their ways into many organisations. Even organisations that do not even produce products, but supply services, like software companies. A question then is, does Lean even apply for organisations that do not actually produce something? I think the answer is 'yes, but not quite'.
The reason for this is that Lean was invented as a solution for production process optimisation, but an organisation that provides a service does not produce something. Like trying to push a square block through a hole. I will try to explain using two examples.

A manufacturing company can use Lean to optimize their supply chain to deliver only the resources that they need at the time that it needs them. This prevents overfilled storage spaces and items never being used. It is fairly straightfoward how to organise this, because everything in a productio process is quantified, from the amount of raw materials needed to make a product to the energy needed to do so.

On the other end of the spectrum, software companies either make something that provides a service (Facebook, IBM, AliExpress, etc.) or provides a service in which they make design and make software for other organisations (agencies). The steps of the processes these companies use to build and maintain their services are fluid in nature because they require creativity for their innovation. And the hardest thing to quantify and make more efficient is creativity. In other words, can you even apply the production process oriented philosophy of Lean to something like the creative process?

Trying to answer questions like "when are you over-optimising a process" is too hard to do by simply reasoning through them. Instead the best thing you can do is to listen to the people who are affected directly by these optimisations.

Within every organisation the most important resources are the employees, because they are the glue between the parts that keep the machine going. When nothing goes wrong it sometimes even seems that they are not even doing anything, but they are, because when something goes wrong they step in and make sure that it gets solved. By being the glue that keeps everything together they make sure the organisation keeps running.
In this, the people doing the actual work, hold most of the collective intelligence and knowlegde about the intricacies of an organisation and how it works best.

So treating employees like they are resources, is dumb. They have feelings, insights and understanding that should be valued (and there respected) at all times. Even better, if they complain about something, this should always be taken seriously, because it is usually grounded in a real and deeper problem.

In other words when implementing changes based on Lean, it is always good to listen to the feedback from the people directly affected by it. And if it negative, then there is a high chance the change is bad somehow for the organisation.


Lean is not a cure-all solution. It cannot be used to make an organisation better in every way. In fact, keeping parts of your organisation 'messy' is a good thing. In those messy areas you leave the room for innovation to happen. And if you allow people to innovate on their own they will feel a sense of ownership and commitment to the organisation, which only strengthens the organisation as a whole. After all, In a very Lean process there is very little room for flexibility.