Lean thinking: outside-in, bottom-up? The paradox of contemporary soft lean and consultant-driven lean implementation
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionTotal Quality Management and Business Excellence. 2016, 1-13. 10.1080/14783363.2016.1171705
Lean has evolved from an operational tool to a complete management concept that incorporates softer aspects such as participation, learning and leadership. This evolution challenges the traditional way in which large management consultancy firms intervene in the lean implementation process; an outside expert cannot easily install a soft, participation-oriented form of lean. To explore this challenge, we report a longitudinal, qualitative case study of how a large consultancy firm supported lean implementation in a public service organisation. Our findings show that although the consultants’ rhetoric had been adapted to the contemporary ideal of soft lean, their practice had not: implementation remained tool-centred and external consultants took the roles of experts. We posit that the business model of large consultancy firms and the nature of conventional client–consultant contracts may explain this mismatch between consultants’ talk and action. Hence, this challenge is difficult to overcome in practice, and managers are advised to consider critically what management consultants can and cannot effectively deliver in lean implementations.