IDR Sustainable Workplace

Psychologically, commercially and environmentally viable organizations

A Lean Office, Staff Engagement and a Very Large Warning

There follows an email from a very bright Masters student looking to investigate the concept of the Lean office.  It -- and the response that follows -- may be of interest to those who employ, or are thinking of employing lean methodology at their place of work.


Dear Craig,

Since we met I have done some literature reviews looking at flexible working and work-life boundaries for those working in a lean office environment. I have been surprised at how little academic research there appears to be relating to working environments, yet there are numerous articles/adverts for consulting companies that seemingly know the answers.

I have become increasingly drawn to researching the lean environment, since it seems to be getting pushed big time as the straightforward solution to over-capacity, cost reduction and improved employee engagement. As a cynical Scottish accountant by training, I can understand the link between reduced space and reduced cost, but I fail to understand the causal link between that and increased engagement. I sat next to someone at a corporate dinner a couple of weeks ago who bizarrely raised lean working as a topic of conversation, saying that it made a wonderfully positive difference to his previous organisation and that he was going to introduce it to his new organisation because of the many benefits it brings. All of the benefits seemed to relate to reduced costs, and how much he enjoyed sitting with everyone else, although he kept a ‘shoutie’ office for when he wanted privacy.

I would therefore like to explore whether working ‘lean’ can truly be correlated with changes in engagement.

Best wishes,





Your lean conversations sound fascinating.  We have spent a lot of time investigating lean over the years and have found it to be, I think it is fair to say, entirely toxic in terms of well-being and productivity.  It reduces workforce engagement quite spectacularly.


However we (that is Alex Haslam and I) began by expecting to find many good things within Lean.  Because while we could find no scientific ground as to why the system should work, like you, we read all sort of positives in business literature and had seen and met any number of proselytizing managers. 


However, eleven years into our research the evidence overwhelmingly shows lean to be a busted flush.  It enjoys no scientific support we have ever found, and thrives in splendid isolation in business only.  Its major effect is to empower the managers who implement the system, the managers who are put in control over the system and the consultants who recommend the system― and it is from these sources that the wonderful stories emanate. 

It is also probable that on occasion there will be initial, short term rises in both well-being and (probably) productivity when Lean is first implemented (I use the word “probably” because people who implement lean demonstrably fail to understand productivity and instead conflate the variable with cost saving).  This is a great example of the Hawthorn effect, which is soon eradicated and undermined by the system's inherent paucity.  It also explains why, in the business literature, ‘Sustain’ is said to be the hardest of the purported five pillars of Lean to realize (the other four pillars being 'sort' 'set in order' 'shine' and 'standardize').


There is a BJM article here (2010 Investigations into the effects of office management and design) and also a reference (below) to a very good chapter by Chris Baldry and colleagues which illustrate the points you raise.  So in short, lean is correlated with engagement but in a consistently negative manner. 

I hope this helps.  Incidentally you are quite right, since Munsterberg in 1913, workspace has been an historically under researched area. A few of us are trying to correct the situation.  It is important to assess management methods as impartially as possible.  When this happens it is worrying about how many serious questions appear to challenge what is currently seen as 'best working practice'. Thanks for writing.


Bye for now,




Baldry, C., Bain, P., & Taylor, P. (1998) ‘Bright satanic offices’: Intensification, control and team Taylorism’ In P. Thompson & C. Warhurst, (Eds.) Workplaces of the future (pp.163-183). Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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