I’ve been reading that expression a lot in business articles over the past couple months. Apparently, it’s one of the reawakened slogans of business managers. Great. I thought that mantra was gone with the '80s.
It’s cropping up across all business segments: non-profits, consultants, and big and small businesses alike. Some examples I’ve seen during the past few weeks include:
“A lean, mean operating machine.” -- Description of Hewlett-Packard by CNN1
"[GM’s] got to emerge…much more lean and mean...than it currently is.” -- A well-known politician talking about GM’s ex-CEO Wagoner heading for the hills.2
“It’s time to take the gloves off and get lean and mean in 2009.” -- Laura Stack, consultant3
“Hospital management to become lean and mean” -- Pongphon Sarnsamak of The Nation.4 You know you’re in good hands when hospitals start talking lean and mean.
“Lean and Mean Gets Extreme” -- BusinessWeek article title5
Okay, that last one’s getting a bit over the top. Apparently, these days it’s not good enough to be mean; a business has gotta be extreme, too.
A number of thoughts come to mind when I hear these statements:
- What does that slogan even mean? I know a bit about lean. But, I had to consult an expert on the “mean” part: The Buddy Rich School[bus] of Management. I provide a link to some of Rich’s seminal thinking at the end of this post. So now I get the mean element.
- Do businesses have to be both lean and mean? How about just lean for now; later, if that lean fad doesn’t work out so well, then add that mean thing. Or, if lean's not enough, we'll tack on mean, just for good measure.
- More to the point, can a business be both? I’m not sure that lean and mean can actually coexist. At least, not in the lexicon I know.
- To what extent do those that use the term think about what they are saying? People seem to use the express as if, as a customer, I would be psyched to hear that from the business. GM has a new goal of getting mean. Wow, as a potential customer, I can’t wait; that’ll be great to buy a car from a mean company. Or, how about visiting a mean hospital?
- Putting “lean” in the same slogan with “mean” does a disservice to concept of lean. It basically says, “If we were fat and happy we wouldn’t be bothering with this lean thing. And well, lean won’t work on its own so let’s get angry at the world while we’re at it.”
I guess it’s all clear to me know. Let me make sure I have all the bases covered for Seven Cycles:
Death spiral? Check. No, wait, death what?
If the definition of “lean and mean” is still not clear, visit The Buddy Rich School[bus] of Management. Warning: offensive language—but what would you expect from a master of mean? And, it's a YouTube clip.
Related post: Weak expression of the week: “I don’t disagree.”