Jim Womack letter: Ten years and counting for LEI

Jim Womack, Lean Enterprise Institute
Tags: lean manufacturing

The Lean Enterprise Institute just celebrated its 10th anniversary with a small, private conference near our headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. Surviving for a decade is no small accomplishment for a start-up organization and I take pride in our achievements:

However, back at LEI, I constantly note that the achievements listed are only inputs that might change organizational practices. The important question is: “What have these inputs created in the way of better organizational performance, the critical output?” This, of course, calls for the “check” step in Dr. Deming’s Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) cycle, raising the questions most of us don’t enjoy asking. It’s so much easier just to plan and do, and then do some more!


Here’s my conclusion about what we have accomplished. We have taken a number of steps which were absolutely necessary by:

But these steps were not sufficient. In fact, the amount of change in management practice and organizational performance over the past ten years has been modest. There is still only one Toyota. And I worry whether Toyota will continue to be Toyota as its growth rate seemingly outpaces its ability to grow lean managers. (What an irony if Toyota becomes more and more like General Motors even as it surpasses General Motors in sales!)


So what do we at LEI – and in the whole lean movement – need to do now? This is the all-important “act” step in the PDCA cycle, the equals sign in the equation.

My conclusion is that we need to describe a new approach to leadership and management that can fully utilize the many lean tools now available. This can be based in part on Toyota practices:

But it is clear that substantial modifications in Toyota practices will be necessary to convert organizations based on Alfred Sloan’s management principles. These were developed at GM in the first half of the 20th century and then refined by General Electric in the second half of the 20th century. Mass-production managers who have been taught that their primary task is to set goals for subordinates and measure the results (in “management by objectives” and “management by metrics”) in vertical, functional organizations will need a clear transition path toward management by horizontal processes if they are not to lose their way.


So, our core mission in the next phase of LEI’s life is to provide a simple and compelling model of “lean management” and “lean leadership” in “lean organizations”. We need to describe and test a model and a method that managers can follow with good results no matter what their previous training. And who knows, even Toyota may benefit!


We are now on the job and we will keep you posted on our progress.


With high hopes for a lean leap in organizations in every industry during the second decade of LEI’s life,




Jim Womack

chairman and founder

Lean Enterprise Institute


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