Researching Lean: Methodological implications of loose definitions

Mikael Brännmark, Jostein Langstrand, Stina Johansson, Agneta Halvarsson, Lena Abrahamsson, Jørgen Winkel

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    Purpose – Lean Production has in Sweden become the dominating ideal for ‘best practice’ in rationalization, organizational development and how to organize the work system. However, research into the effects of Lean for different stakeholders has produced ambiguous results. Furthermore, Lean practices seem to overlap with other popular management concepts, such as High Performance Work Systems, World Class Manufacturing and Total Quality Management. This confusion, combined with different methodological and theoretical traditions, has led to much debate and contradictory conclusions regarding Lean. The purpose of the paper is to illustrate some key methodological issues that need to be considered in future Lean research to allow increased understanding of Lean effects for different stakeholders, primarily meaning the customer, employer and employees. Design/methodology/approach – The paper is based on a multiple comparative case study, in which five Lean
    case studies are presented. All of the studies are of recent origin, and based in Sweden. The cases have been compared and contrasted based on the approaches to Lean, in terms of local ideals, operationalization and implementation. Findings – The findings from the case studies are in line with the existing literature, indicating that Lean has changed over time and that operationalization of the concept varies considerably between work life sectors. The findings demonstrate that approaches related to Lean differ significantly between the studied organizations and stakeholders. This applies to both the interpretations of the Lean concept itself, but also of the operationalization of Lean and implementation design. Although the cases show great similarities in the Lean ideals, the concept takes on many different forms when operationalized, which makes it very difficult to study through a priori definitions. Practical implications/recommendations – The large variation in interpretations of Lean complicates metaanalyses regarding potential impact of Lean on the primary stakeholders of an organization, i.e. the customer, employees and employer. Based on the case studies, we suggest that future investigations describe the Lean interventions in more detail. General descriptions or analogies, e.g. ‘learning organizations’, presumably increase the present confusion regarding Lean impact on different stakeholders. The case studies also illustrate the importance of describing factors that may mediate the effects of Lean, e.g. the local context of the investigated organizations, implementation design. More research is needed to identify these factors, how, and to what degree they mediate the consequences from Lean. Originality/value – The multidisciplinary approach of the included case studies provides an empirical richness that allows us to address the specific issues that need to be focused in the various disciplines investigating the impact of Lean on different organizational stakeholders.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationProceedings of the 15th QMOD conference on Quality and Service Sciences
    Publication date2012
    Publication statusPublished - 2012
    Event15th QMOD Conference on Quality and Service Sciences (ICQSS 2012) - Poznan, Poland
    Duration: 5 Sept 20127 Sept 2012


    Conference15th QMOD Conference on Quality and Service Sciences (ICQSS 2012)

    Bibliographical note

    Brännmark M, Langstrand J, Johansson S, Halvarsson A, Abrahamsson L, Winkel J. Researching Lean: Methodological implications of loose definitions. 15th QMOD conference on Quality and Service Sciences ICQSS 2012, September 5-7, 2012. Poznan, Poland. Proceedings, pp 242-53.


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