No, We Won’t Stay in Our Lanes or Stick to Lean

Updated: Oct 20, 2020



Most of my professional life, work, and public persona is wrapped around a methodology that’s often referred to as “Lean management.” I’ve written a book called Lean Hospitals and I’ve run a website and podcast called LeanBlog.org for over 15 years. What I share on social media has been pretty much all Lean, all the time.


As much as I love that subject, there are more important topics and subjects in this day and age — during a pandemic, continued racial injustice, and an election with unprecedented stakes.


If I send a tweet or write a blog post that encourages people to vote, somebody might think (or even comment) that I should “stick to Lean.” I’ve heard it before. Now, saying “everybody should go out and exercise their right to vote” should be a completely uncontroversial stance. I’m not telling you how to vote — just vote.


Please, go and vote. And let’s make sure everybody’s vote gets counted. YOUR VOTE MATTERS — don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Your voice matters, too.


Now, on the topic of voting and using my voice, if I were to tweet or blog about the sad reality of women and Black people being denied their vote, in different ways, throughout American history, that might prompt an even stronger reaction from some. Then, I might really get criticized.


This happens when doctors who speak out about social issues, like gun violence, get told loudly to “stay in their lane.” Athletes and sports talk radio hosts who share their opinions on politics or social issues get told “stick to sports.” Actors and musicians who speak up get told... you see the pattern. If they’re not a white man, they might be subject to insults and slurs in the process.


Even the famed pilot and widely-admired American hero Captain “Sully” Sullenberger has been viciously attacked online for daring to endorse Joe Biden over Donald Trump for reasons that are principled and have nothing to do with partisan positions or issues. “Stick to aviation” and “Just because you’re an aviation expert doesn’t mean you know anything about anything else” are amongst the more polite comments I’ve seen on his public Facebook page. I’ve seen comments that include a phrase that’s been thrown at me... that I need to “stop trying to maintain my relevance” by getting out of my lane.


But what do people really mean when they say “stick to sports” and “stay in your lane”? They seem to be alternative ways of saying what really seems to be on people’s minds — “I disagree with you” and, even worse, “I want you to shut up.”



Some people publicly threaten to stop watching NBA games on TV because they don’t like seeing “Black Lives Matter” on the court. That’s their right to stop watching. If people stop reading free blog posts because they disapprove of me putting a big “END RACISM” ad in the sidebar of my blog (the same language used by the NFL at the back of the end zone this season), I’m happy to give them a full refund.


Unfortunately, this philosophy of “stay in your lane” is usually not applied equally.


When a white man constantly complains online when LeBron James speaks out about injustices in our society or his fears as a Black American, do they also call out white athletes who say things that might be considered conservative in nature? Did they tell Drew Brees to “stick to sports” or “shut up and play” when the Saints quarterback spoke out in favor of standing during the National Anthem?


So, does a person who complains about me blogging, podcasting, or tweeting about racial justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion also complain about others in my field who publicly support (if not worship) our current President on social media? I’ve chosen to tune out some of those people, but I would never say to them, “Will you shut up, man?”


In 2016, some other authors and public figures in my field invited me to speak out in support of HIllary Clinton. I chose not to participate. For one, I was still of the mindset that I needed to stay in my lane. It was a self-imposed limit to my own speech. I guess I was afraid of alienating half of my audience or half of my potential client base. I sat that one out.


During the 2016 election cycle, I did write a blog post (well within my lane) that was critical of Trump, but from the standpoint of his view of business leadership — “There’s a Yuuuge Problem with Donald Trump’s Outdated Definition of Leadership.” Trump unfortunately defined “leadership” in a way that runs completely counter to Lean management, so I spoke out about that. Trump said, “I've always been a leader. I've never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they're going to do it. That's what leadership is all about.”


No, that’s not leadership, that’s the thinking of a bully or a tyrant. It’s like he got his MBA from Putin, not Wharton. I couldn’t possibly express, in a blog post of a reasonable length, the mortal flaws that I see in Trump’s character (or lack thereof). I’ve been appalled by so many of his words and actions in his first four years. I’ve become a “single-issue voter” and that issue is getting Trump fired.


This year, I’ve started speaking out more. My words might not have that much of an impact, but I can’t let the words stay stuck in my head. I wrote a blog post that talked about the horrors of police brutality and racial injustice, taking care to make connections to Lean principles.


I’ve been more likely this year to criticize the President’s words and actions — because I can, and I feel like I must as a matter of my own conscience. I do try to make at least subtle connections to core Lean principles — respecting science and standards, leading by example, seeking to understand (and not diminish) the perspectives of others, asking and explaining why, and practicing “respect for people,” as Toyota calls it.


One of my favorite radio hosts and podcasters, Dan Le Batard, is told quite explicitly by his bosses at ESPN to “stick to sports” — or if he is going to wade into politics, there has to be at least some connection to sports. He bends those rules, but I appreciate he doesn’t want to lose his voice altogether by getting fired. I’m fortunate as an entrepreneur that I’m my own boss — and the companies that I work closely with appreciate my speaking out. Nobody in my direct professional circles tells me to shush.


As I was speaking out more, I decided to hand over my LeanBlog.org site to Deondra Wardelle for a week as a way to amplify her voice (and the voices of other women she invited to participate) on the topic of what she called #RootCauseRacism.


I’ve hosted podcasts where I’ve been willing to wade into uncomfortable conversations about race and white privilege (trying to learn and listen more than I spoke). I’ve partnered with Deondra and the software company KaiNexus to present panel discussions with diverse voices, people sharing their thoughts on the intersection of our professional field, Lean, and these important social issues.


I did receive a few YouTube comments, blog comments, and emails that criticized me for getting out of my lane and not sticking to Lean. The language used was not vulgar (or as offensive as it might have been), but these people made clear that they disapproved of me taking on these issues — which means they disagree and they want me to shut up.


One email said, in part, “I don’t read your blog or LinkedIn posts for political or social commentary. There is more than enough of that everywhere else. I’m tuning out for awhile (sic).


If somebody accuses me of being “woke” — doesn’t that imply the accuser acknowledges they are still sleeping on these important issues that don’t affect them directly? I am a bit ashamed that I’ve been asleep (or in a coma) about issues that didn’t personally affect me. Yes, I’m now awake and active.


I’ve been criticized for “virtue signaling” — oh, so they admit my concerns are virtuous? If they are accusing me of doing nothing more than signaling, I assure you (and them) that I am taking specific actions to make sure the guests on my podcasts and the webinars that I moderate for KaiNexus reflect the diversity of the American population (and that we bring in more international voices, as well).


This article caught my eye the other day: “The Era Of Influencers Being Apolitical Online Is Over.” The author, Stephanie McNeal says, “Influencers who continue to post their usual content without acknowledging the realities of this country face the risk of appearing so laughably out of touch that it renders anything else they have to say irrelevant.”


While LinkedIn labels me formally as an “Influencer,” I don’t have anything near the influence of, for example, Jim Gaffigan (a comedian) and Kerry Washington (an actor and much more) and, as a fan of each, I was happy to see them speaking out authentically. Now, I do have a relatively large following in a small niche of a professional world — I have a voice and I have an audience. I’m willing (in a way that I was not in 2016) to lose some of that audience if they don’t like what I have to say.


As I tweeted immediately after the first Presidential debate (and I use the word “presidential” loosely):


“I condemn and denounce white supremacists. If this statement bothers you, unfollow or block me.”

I think only a handful of people have taken me up on that offer. I shared the same thought on Facebook and a number of friends commented and then shared the same thing on their Facebook accounts. I was happy that some of them would follow my lead.


To those who would unfollow, block, or criticize, I say this in conclusion:


You don’t have to listen, and you don’t have to agree, but don’t you dare tell me not to speak. Don’t tell others not to speak. Use your voice to disagree and share your perspective if you like.


But, more importantly, please use your voice and go vote.

Connect with Mark on:

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is the author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

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