Clothing company Cuyana advocates a minimalist fashion lifestyle, encouraging women to only buy quality items that they truly love. Rather than producing the cheap, replaceable items that dominate the market (think: H&M), Cuyana manufactures more expensive, but more durable, pieces. The company calls this shopping philosophy “lean closet.”
The timing for this philosophy couldn’t be better. Japanese organizational guru Marie Kondo’s approach to a better life through decluttering by (among other things) throwing away old or unloved clothing has become a sensation, spawning two best-selling books and an app.
Regardless of what you call it, lean thinkers will recognize familiar elements of 5S in all of this. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with reducing the production of disposable crap and getting rid of stuff you don’t wear or use. But at the risk of sounding like an irritating schoolmarm, calling it “lean closet” does a disservice to the word “lean,” because it runs the risk of making people think that “lean” only means “less.”
Author and lean practitioner Norbert Majerus of Goodyear runs a terrific exercise in his lean workshops in which he has attendees pair up, stand face-to-face, and memorize the other person’s appearance. Then he tells them to face away from each other and make a change. Almost everyone takes something away—they remove their glasses, take off hair bands, pull pens out of their shirt pockets, take off sweaters, etc. Even though everyone is standing in a meeting room with pencils, notepads, highlighters, water glasses and the like, virtually no one picks up any of these items. No one adds anything to their appearance. As Majerus points out, when we think of change in a lean context, we tend to think we have to remove things. We have to reduce. We have to do without.
Obviously, eliminating waste is a central idea in lean thinking. But when “lean” is used as a synonym for “less,” it leads people to think that’s all there is. Less stuff in your house. Fewer clothes in your closet. It misses all the truly important aspects of lean—like, say, respect for people. Or problem solving. Or creating value for customers.
So, let’s call it “smart shopping.” Or “sustainable fashion.” Or “intelligent consumption.” But please take “lean” out of the closet. It’s a short step from there to the old joke that lean means “less employees are needed." And that's not helping anyone.