Is lean a theory? Viewpoints and outlook

Pär Åhlström, Pamela Danese, Peter Hines, Torbjørn H. Netland, Daryl Powell, Rachna Shah, Matthias Thürer, Desirée H. van Dun

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: Lean remains popular in a wide range of private and public sectors and continues to attract a significant amount of research. However, most of this research is not grounded in theory. This paper presents and discusses different expert viewpoints on the role of theory in lean research and practice and provides guidelines for future research. Design/methodology/approach: Seven experienced lean authors independently provide their views to the question “is Lean a theory?” before Rachna Shah summarizes the viewpoints and provides a holistic outlook for lean research. Findings: Authors agree, disagree and sometimes agree to disagree. However, a close look reveals agreement on several key points. The paper concludes that Lean is not a theory but has plenty of theoretical underpinnings. Many lean-related theories provide promising opportunities for future research. Originality/value: As researchers, we are asked to justify our research drawing on “theory,” but what does that mean for a practice-driven phenomenon such as lean? This paper provides answers and directions for future research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1852-1878
Number of pages27
JournalInternational Journal of Operations and Production Management
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Lean
  • Lean theory
  • Operational excellence


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