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
- 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