Reembedding Lean: The Japanese Cultural and Religious Context of a World Changing Management Concept
James Womack, Daniel Jones, and Daniel Roos rhetorically positioned the management concept “lean” for the business world in the early 1990s, claiming that lean would change the world for the better. In this article, I consider the management concept “lean,” its relation to Japanese history, culture, and religious ideas that were salient in Japanese reasoning about management at the time lean was developed. I discuss the embeddedness of lean and relate my findings to the problem of transfer of managerial practices using transfer models developed in a neoinstitutional framework. Contrary to claims by Womack, Jones, and Ross that lean can be studied and implemented without regard to the context, I show how practices and attitudes considered central to lean have a long-standing history in Japan. They can be traced back to the Tokugawa period (1600–1868) and were salient in the trading houses of early modern Japan, in turn heavily inspired by Japanese religious thinking. Research in management fashion suggests that early success case discourse leads to disappointment and abandonment of management concepts later in their life course. Hence, I suggest that the claims of context independence ultimately have led to a declining interest in lean in the business world.