LEAN Paradox - Specialists versus Generalists

Updated: Jun 9


In a world that values specialists, individual workmanship and personal accountability the LEAN culture can seem foreign, threatening and perhaps even wrong.


In the research paper, "Managing Paradoxical Tensions During the Implementation of Lean Capabilities for Improvement [1]" the authors considers four types of organizational paradoxes: organizing, performing, belonging and learning. In the category on belonging a statement from one of the companies researched typifies a common belief:

"Specialists value what they do and their prestige is based on what they have achieved; now they have to be process managers rather than specialists; this fact has challenged their work identities”

The paper goes on to say:

As such, lean calls for learning more professional skills and applying these in a team setting rather than achieving higher levels of technical proficiency in narrower areas of specialisation (Womack, Jones, and Roos, 1990; West and Burnes, 2000; Lee et al., 2000).

Namely, “the paradox is that the better you are at teamwork, the less you may know about a specific, narrow specialty that you can take with you to another company or to start a new business” (Womack, Jones, and Roos, 1990, p. 14)."

- My emphasis in bold

Teamwork strikes at the heart of how many people are valued and how they contribute to the organization. The LEAN mindset challenges our current organizational structures and yet the problems that companies face are those that require greater levels of what LEAN espouses.

A common consensus among regulators and standards organizations is the need for better systems to keep workers safe and to help workers make safe choices. The solutions do not rest entirely on either the systems or on the workers but on both. To find these types of solutions requires having a more holistic perspective with greater levels of engagement from those that participate in the processes that we wish to improve.

This does not mean that the pendulum swings over from specialists to having everyone become generalists. We still and always need the skilled workmanship of specialists. However, we now need to be open to learn and understand how to work better as a team, in community and come along side others when they need support.

When pressures are high and push comes to shove we tend to move to our default behavior. Instead of every person for themselves, perhaps we can move in the direction of reaching out to those we work with and seeing if we can help.

For those who put their lives at risk everyday they already know that it is better to look out for each other so that everyone gets to go home after their shift. Perhaps, in some ways we are not that far away from the LEAN culture after all.

[1] Managing Paradoxical Tensions During the Implementation of Lean Capabilities for Improvement. / Maalouf, Malek Miguel; Gammelgaard, Britta. In: International Journal of Operations and Production Management, Vol. 36, No. 6, 2016, p. 687-709. DOI: 10.1108/IJOPM-10-2014-0471


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