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The “Lean and Mean” Message

Every so often I hear the expression “lean and mean” applied to United States industries. This week I heard it again, in an ASTD webcast called “Closing the Skills Gap,” which focused on the challenge of filling U.S. jobs that require certain skills.

The expression was used by Stacy Jarrett Wagner, managing director of the Center for Workforce Success of the National Association of Manufacturers. She said that manufacturers have to be “lean and mean” to be successful. The phrase stood out because Ms. Jarrett Wagner was focusing on how to attract people into high-paying, highly skilled manufacturing jobs.

Are people attracted to a lean and mean industry? What does “lean and mean” mean?

I decided to look closely at the words and their definitions. These definitions of lean come from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition:

lean: 1. Not fleshy or fat; thin. 2. Containing little or no fat. 3a. Not productive or prosperous; meager: lean years. b. Containing little excess or waste; spare: a lean budget. c. Thrifty in management; economical: “Company leaders know their industries must be lean to survive.”

Many of those lean definitions are positive, and they make sense to describe industry efforts to be successful. So far, so good. Let’s look at mean, also from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition:

mean: 1a. Selfish in a petty way; unkind. b. Cruel, spiteful, or malicious. 2. Ignoble, base: a mean motive. 3. Miserly; stingy. 4a. Low in quality or grade; inferior. b. Low in value or amount; paltry. 5. Common or poor in appearance; shabby. 6. Low in social status; of humble origin. 7. Humiliated or ashamed. 8. In poor physical condition; sick or debilitated. 9. Extremely unpleasant or disagreeable: The meanest storm in years. 10. (Informal) Ill-tempered. 11. (Slang) a. Hard to cope with; difficult or troublesome: He throws a mean fast ball. b. Excellent, skillful: She plays a mean game of bridge.

Except for its last definition, which is slang, the word mean has only very negative meanings. Does mean really describe U.S. manufacturers? I hope it doesn’t.

I believe manufacturers and other companies and organizations must cast off the expression “lean and mean” if they want to attract highly skilled, intelligent, committed workers.

Recognizing the value of rhyme and punch, I suggest that they substitute this phrase: “lean and keen.”

Keen is a wonderful world. Among its definitions in The American Heritage Dictionary are these positive descriptions:

  • Having a fine sharp cutting edge or point [Sounds fine for manufacturing]
  • Having or marked by quick intelligence and acuity
  • Acutely sensitive, as in “a keen ear”
  • Sharp, vivid, strong
  • Intense
  • Ardent, enthusiastic

Language matters. It colors our perceptions and our actions. That’s why I’m pushing for a new slogan in manufacturing, health care, high tech, pharmaceuticals, communications, and other industries: “lean and keen.” I’m predicting that if industries perceive, describe, and conduct themselves as lean and keen, skilled workers will be drawn to them.

What do you think?


Other search spellings: defenition, defention, defintion, manufcature, manufacteur, associaton


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

16 comments on “The “Lean and Mean” Message”

  • “Lean and mean” is an idiom. Those two words stand for something else than just the sum of their meaning. Language matters!

  • Daniel, very interesting! Thanks for the link. But in case people hesitate to follow your link, why not say a bit more here?

  • In my opinion the topic “lean and mean” is a closed one. People who cling to beliefs like this one don’t deserve to manage anyone. Business is about people. So my suggestion is to let go of this particular idiom and replace it by one much more attractive and natural (according to T. DeMarco for instance): (To be) Prosperous and Caring. It doesn’t rhyme, but it attracts people.

    Best regards
    Daniel Rogowski

  • Hi, thanks for this post, which I mostly agree with. Let me say, though, that “leaner and meaner” can be ideal for particular products, such as antivirus software, which is expected to aggressively attack viruses and other malware, or for a 4WD SUV, the ‘meanness’ of which is an attribute for off-road application. Generally, you are correct, but (as with any ‘rule’) certain exceptions apply.

  • Hello,
    I went down to this page while searching for this expression. I’ve encountered it in a detective story where it was applied to the main character.
    Since English is not my mother tongue its meaning is still not clear to me. I understand it as being slim and agile (lean) as well as tough, hard-hitting or aggressive (mean).

  • I work for a company that is going full tilt towards Lean and Mean and beleive me the word mean is not being used as an idiom.The sugestion of Lean and Keen should be preached from the roof tops everywhere

  • Hi. I’m making a case study for our marketing class. Some other definitions for “lean-and-mean” kinda confused me, then google led me to this page. Thank you! It helped a lot.

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