Management fashions as substitutes for leadership: The case of lean management

Simon Bendix Hørup Nord

Student thesis: Master thesis


The aim of this thesis is to provide an alternative view on Lean Management, leadership, and management fashions based on a critical review of theories and empirical material. To arrive at this alternative view, I will use the critical management research framework by Alvesson and Deetz (2000) based on the three tasks of achieving insight, critique and providing a transformative redefinition. Lean Management is basically perceived as a set of principles and techniques that seek to change organizations and increase organizational effectiveness by focusing on value, mapping the value stream and banishing waste, creating flow and pull, and continuous improvements. However, in this thesis I will argue that Lean Management is also a substitute for leadership, that it is a management fashion, and thus, that all management fashions are substitutes for leadership. The Lean principles and techniques not only function as a means to improve organizational effectiveness, but they also inspire commitment, mobilize action, and promote legitimacy for organizational change by spreading responsibility and distributing authority in an organization. The definition of leadership that I have adopted will illustrate leadership as a distributed, discursive and relational phenomenon that is socially constructed among organizational actors. In the last twenty years enthusiasm for Lean Management has spread like wildfire across nations and industries, to the point where it has now achieved the status of a management fashion. By making this observation I do not intend to dismiss or diminish Lean. To the contrary, in this thesis I argue that Lean has become so popular because it functions as a substitute for leadership. In a larger perspective all management fashions are substitutes for leadership, because they promote new techniques that close performance gaps, while also infusing organizational members with a new language that conveys a sense of meaning and purpose. The research performed in this thesis will show that the resistance to putting the label of management fashion on Lean is primarily due to the perceived lack of seriousness surrounding the fashion concept. I will argue that realizing that Lean is a management fashion does not subtract from the usefulness of Lean, but that this realization can help leaders evaluate which management fashions to employ given the specific substitute for leadership it will promote. On the same note, this alternative perspective can assist fashion-setters, such as consultants, management gurus, business schools and business mass-media, in adjusting their management techniques that enable them to be useful for a longer period of time than they currently are, in a way so that leaders can still be perceived as being rational and progressive in the eyes of organizational stakeholders. My findings lead me to promote Eccles and Nohria’s “action perspective” for managing organizations, which emphasizes employing effective rhetoric that mobilizes robust action to reach organizational goals, while maintaining a keen eye to the multiple identities, motivations and interests that organizational members have.

EducationsMSc in Business, Language and Culture, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2010
Number of pages165