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Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148

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Lean production in complex socio-technical systems: A systematic

literature review
Marlon Soliman ∗ , Tarcisio Abreu Saurin
Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul – UFRGS, Industrial Engineering and Transportation Department – DEPROT, Av Osvaldo Aranha, 99, 5th Floor., Porto
Alegre, RS, 90035-190, Brazil

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Although lean production (LP) is usually associated with complexity reduction, it has been increasingly
Received 8 February 2017 applied in highly complex socio-technical systems (CSS) (e.g. healthcare), in which the complexity level
Received in revised form 3 August 2017 cannot be reduced below a certain (high) threshold. This creates a paradoxical situation, which is not
Accepted 6 September 2017
well understood in theory and can be underlying the frustrating results of many lean implementations.
This article presents a systematic literature review of how LP has dealt with complexity, both in theory
and in practice, from a complexity science perspective. The review was based on 94 papers, which were
Lean production
analyzed according to seven criteria: how the concept of complexity is being used in lean research; the
Complex socio-technical systems
Systematic literature review
complexity level of the studied systems; the compatibility between the methodological approach and
Barriers the nature of complexity; how complexity is managed by LP; barriers to LP in CSS; side-effects of LP in
Side-effects CSS; and whether complexity is always detrimental to LP. A research agenda is also proposed.
© 2017 The Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


1. Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
2. What is complexity? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
3. Research design . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
3.1. Selection of papers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
3.2. Framework of data analysis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
4. Results . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
4.1. Overview of the included papers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
4.2. Theoretical approaches to complexity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138
4.3. How complex were the systems in which LP was implemented? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140
4.4. Was the methodological approach compatible with complexity science? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
4.5. How is complexity managed in LP systems? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
4.6. What are the main barriers to LP in CSS? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
4.7. Are there side-effects arising from LP in CSS? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
4.8. Is complexity necessarily detrimental to LP? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
5. Conclusions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 144
5.1. Contributions of this study . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 144
5.2. Limitations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 145
5.3. Agenda for future research . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 145
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 146

∗ Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses:, (M. Soliman), (T.A. Saurin).
0278-6125/© 2017 The Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
136 M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148

1. Introduction LP adopts particular principles and practices, which can interact

with complexity in different ways, in comparison with other oper-
Lean Production (LP) is widely known as a philosophy to ations management theories. At the same time, as LP involves all
improve performance in production systems by eliminating waste management areas (e.g. inventory management, product design,
and delivering value for customers [1]. Several studies have pro- etc.), it provides a broad scope for investigation.
vided empirical evidence of the LP benefits in terms of lead times, Considering the aforementioned context, the research question
productivity, quality, and other business dimensions. Mostly, such addressed by this study is stated as follows: how does LP deal with
evidence comes from manufacturing plants [2], which is consistent the complexity of socio-technical systems? In order to answer this
with the origin of LP in the automotive sector. Only recently has LP question, we carried out a systematic literature review of the LP
been more widely applied in services such as healthcare [3]. implementation in CSS. From a theoretical perspective, this review
The dissemination of LP to a wide range of sectors also means sheds light on: how the concept of complexity is being used in lean
that it has been implemented in systems which are fundamen- research, the complexity characteristics of the studied systems, and
tally different from car manufacturing. In particular, LP has been the compatibility between the methodological approaches used by
more and more used in highly complex socio-technical systems, researchers and the nature of complexity. From a practical view-
CSS [4]. These systems are characterized by high levels of uncer- point, the review offers insights into how complexity is managed
tainty, diversity, and dynamic interactions, among other features by LP, barriers to LP in CSS, side-effects of LP in CSS, and whether
that require management approaches compatible with their nature complexity is always detrimental to LP. Although several literature
[5]. reviews of LP implementation have been published recently (e.g.
In these environments, LP as usually applied in more linear sys- [26]), this is the first review focused on LP and complexity to the
tems can have unintended consequences. For instance, LP can make authors’ knowledge.
the system more vulnerable to unexpected variability (i.e. a com-
plexity characteristic), since the limit between necessary slack and
waste is not straightforward in CSS [6]. This concern has been sup- 2. What is complexity?
ported by empirical evidence. For example, Ref. [7] reported the
case of lean adoption in the F-22 aircraft manufacturing, where Although there is no consensus on the definition of complex-
tasks that did not add value to the end customer were eliminated ity, it is usually accepted that complex systems in general share
without considering their real utility to support the whole system some interrelated attributes, such as a large number of elements
functioning. Ref. [4] conducted a survey with 126 US manufacturing [5,27,28], emergent properties [11,29], nonlinear dynamics [30,31],
companies and evaluated the effect of complexity and dynamism feedback loops [5,11,30] and adaptive behavior [32,33].
on lean operations. The authors found that when the rate of envi- Complex systems may be either natural (e.g. thermodynamic
ronmental change was high, performance was not improved by lean systems; human organism) or artificial (e.g. nuclear plants; space
operations [4]. A similar finding was obtained by Ref. [8], with 228 missions; chemical plants) [30,34,35]. This study focuses on com-
manufacturing Irish companies, in which lean practices were asso- plex socio-technical systems (CSS), which are a particular class of
ciated with a positive impact on quality, delivery and flexibility complex adaptive systems [36,37] composed by people and tech-
only when dynamism was low. In line with this, Ref. [9] argue that nology interacting to produce a desirable output [38]. Table 1
lean may have reached its limit, since today’s strong fluctuations in presents examples of how the attributes of complexity might be
markets are in conflict with required levelled capacity utilization present in socio-technical systems.
praised by lean. It is also worth noting the difference between complex and
When confronted with such failures of LP in CSS, the instinc- complicated systems. Although complicated systems may have
tive reaction of some lean practitioners and consultants may be to thousands of parts, they follow a set of predefined rules (e.g. a com-
question the extent to which the lean projects were truly in line puter software), and interactions are mostly linear. By contrast, CSS
with the lean theory – i.e. their assumption is likely to be that the cannot be fully described and modelled mathematically, and their
theory is ‘right’, and thus failure is essentially a matter of misun- behavior is unpredictable to some extent [39].
derstanding the theory and not applying it correctly. By contrast, The definition of a philosophical perspective of complexity also
from a scientific perspective, a mismatch between theory and prac- matters for this study, since this has implications for the research
tice also raises the question of whether the theory has fundamental design and data analysis. As such, we approach complexity from a
gaps [10]. critical realist view. This view assumes the existence of an objec-
In fact, the relationship between LP and complexity has not tive reality (i.e. in line with realism), while at the same time it
been discussed in depth in the literature. There is a need for dis- recognizes that any observation is liable to the subjectivity of the
cussing this relationship from a complexity science perspective, individual (i.e. in line with constructivism) [40]. This perspective
which has theoretical and practical implications. Indeed, complex- implies that complexity can be measured, and thus some systems
ity science has received increasing attention across a number of are expected to be more complex than others [41]. Additionally,
disciplines, as a result of both the perceived limitations of the mech- critical realism implies that, regardless of the unavoidable differ-
anistic paradigms as well as the perceived increasing complexity of ent perspectives of what counts as complex or not, complexity can
contemporary socio-technical systems [5,11]. In the broader oper- be managed to some extent. Although it is not possible to intervene
ations management literature, and in this journal, several studies directly on complexity due to its emergent nature [42], the perspec-
have discussed the implications of complexity, in topics such as tive of critical realism is relevant to operations management since
product and process design [12–15], supply chain management it acknowledges the possibility of designing practices to influence
[16–21], knowledge management [22,23], and project manage- the factors and their interactions that set the stage for the emer-
ment [24]. With some exceptions (e.g. [21,24]), these studies do not gence of complexity. In fact, even the observer-dependent aspect
adopt an explicit complexity science perspective and they seem to of complexity can be influenced by design to some extent. Ref. [24]
agree that complexity is mostly a hindrance, even though it can also identified six factors that may increase imaginary complexity, such
be a source of resilience [7,25]. Therefore, new or revised practices as unintuitive system organization and lack of observer capability.
are necessary for dealing with attributes of complexity. Although these authors refer to imaginary complexity as “compli-
In this paper we limit our scope to the management of com- catedness”, it should be noted that this concept is not the same as
plexity when associated with LP. This decision was made because the aforementioned concept of complicated systems.
M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148 137

Table 1
Attributes of complexity and examples in socio-technical systems.

Attributes Examples

Large number of elements Equipment, people, materials, supplies, procedures, sectors, departments, business types
Dynamic interactions People exchanging information; chemical interactions between materials
Rich interactions Single agents may be interconnected to innumerous customers, suppliers, colleagues and third-parts,
exchanging large portions of information
Non-linear interactions A small variation in the output of an operation (e.g. a tiny defect) can cause large disruptions (e.g. a recall)
Interactions with immediate neighbors In assembly lines, workstations primarily interact with the next and the previous operation
Feedback loops An increase in sales (e.g. a clearance sale) may rapidly saturate the market, thus decreasing sales for the
next period
Openness Socio-technical systems are subjected to external variability such as macroeconomics, politics and
Operations are far from equilibrium Supply and demand are ever-changing, thus the system is ever adjusting its function to support operations
Complex systems have a history The way the system is currently managed is due to previous experiences and challenges overcome in the
Ignorance of the behavior of the system as a whole Front-line operators are unaware of the impacts of their work on downstream departments and overall
plant performance

Source: Adapted from [5].

Lastly, the complexity classification proposed by Ref. [43] was teria, 275 articles were excluded and 94 remained for the next step
adopted in this paper. According to these authors, complexity can of the review.
be divided into dynamic complexity, which accounts for the inter- These 94 articles were included in a database, which con-
actions, and detail complexity, which is related to the number of tained: (i) identification data (database, journal’s name, title, year
elements composing the system. This classification is similar to of publication, sector); (ii) main contents of the study (objectives,
others available in the literature, such as functional and structural techniques for gathering and analyzing data, research strategy, and
complexity [44], dynamic and structural complexity [45], and rela- main results); and (iii) pieces of evidence of complexity, such as
tionship and element complexity [24]. descriptions of the system or results that could be reinterpreted
according to the attributes of complexity presented in Section 2.
It should be noted that the exclusion of certain sources from
3. Research design the on-line search for papers does not mean these sources were
neglected by this review. It only means that these contributions
3.1. Selection of papers were not included in the previously mentioned database and
therefore were not included in the calculation of the distribution
The selection of papers to be included in the literature review of papers according to the data analysis categories described in
was based on the steps recommended by Ref. [46] (Fig. 1), involving: Section 3.2. Thus, a number of additional sources were used to sup-
(a) identification of the papers; (b) screening; (c) eligibility; and (d) port the analysis of the results obtained from the on-line search.
inclusion. Although these sources did not count as “data” they had an impor-
As for the Identification step, six databases, which were avail- tant role to enrich data analysis.
able from the authors’ institution, were included: Emerald Insight;
Science Direct; IEEE Xplore; Springer Link; Wiley Online Library;
and EBSCO Business Source Complete. The databases were queried 3.2. Framework of data analysis
between March 9th and 11th, 2016 and, for each database, the
results were downloaded in single batches and on the same day. A framework of data analysis was specifically devised for this
The search criteria encompassed the terms ‘Lean’ AND ‘Com- study. The included papers were analyzed according to two crite-
plexity’ in the title, abstract and/or keywords. This limitation was ria: (i) links with the complexity theory; and (ii) implications for
necessary since browsing in the full text returned a very large practice. Each criterion was broken down into relevant categories of
number of results (e.g. more than 31,000 only for Springer Link data analysis defined upfront (Table 2). Data coding in the defined
database). The period of publications was not specified. After categories was initially carried out by one researcher. Then, results
excluding 2 duplicates; 618 records were identified at the end of were thoroughly reviewed by another researcher, and reasons for
this step. disagreements were discussed until a consensus was achieved.
Concerning the screening step, six exclusion criteria were
applied: (i) non-scientific texts (e.g. magazine paper and techni- 4. Results
cal reports, 7 records); (ii) papers written in other languages than
English (3 records); (iii) conference proceedings (34 records); (v) 4.1. Overview of the included papers
book chapters (195 records); and (vi) full content access denied
(10 records). Based on these criteria, 249 articles were excluded Most papers (72%) were published after 2011, indicating the
and 369 remained for the next step. acknowledgment of contextual factors (e.g. use of IT) that increase
Regarding the eligibility step, the full contents of the 369 articles the complexity of contemporary socio-technical systems. On the
were analyzed in light of one exclusion and one inclusion criteria: one hand, this fairly recent emphasis on LP and complexity may be
(i) papers in which the terms ‘Lean’ and ‘Complexity’ were not used due to the more frequent use of lean in highly CSS. On the other
in the sense of the research question were excluded (e.g. ‘lean burn’ hand, it may arise from the evolution of lean thinking, which has
in combustion science, and ‘complexity’ not referring to produc- moved from understanding LP as a set of operational practices to a
tion systems or to lean implementation); (ii) papers about LP that broad business system, which should be based on systems thinking
presented results that could be reinterpreted from the complexity [47].
perspective were included – e.g. a lean application that reduced the Mostly, papers were empirical (62.7%) involving the collection of
number of employees could be reinterpreted as a reduction in the field data and using varied research strategies, such as case studies,
number of parts and interactions. As a result of applying these cri- surveys, expo-facto analysis, and simulations. Theoretical papers
138 M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148

Fig. 1. Steps for selecting the papers.

(37.3%) included literature reviews and framework proposals that Regardless of the prominence of some sectors in Fig. 2, we opted
have not been tested in practice. for not restricting our review to those most emphasized by the lit-
Fig. 2 shows the economic sectors addressed by the articles. The erature. This choice made it possible to explore different attributes
category referred to as ‘not specified’ stands for papers that are and contexts of CSS. Furthermore, it would be an oversimplification
not focused on any specific domain, such as the development of to assume that the economic sector, by itself, defines a company as
generic frameworks and theoretical papers. Studies involving more a highly CSS. Within a same sector, the complexity level of different
than one sector (surveys with multiple firms, for example) were companies and plants can be substantially different depending on
included in the ‘cross-sector’ category. the way processes are designed and managed.
According to Fig. 2, healthcare was the sector most frequently
associated with LP and complexity. Indeed, hospitals and health- 4.2. Theoretical approaches to complexity
care organizations in general have been widely recognized as highly
CSS [48,49]. The use of LP in automotive and other manufacturing Only 20.2% of the studies were explicitly and systematically sup-
firms, respectively the second and third most emphasized sec- ported by theoretical frameworks aligned to complexity science.
tors, has also been explicitly connected with complexity. Although We identified nine different theoretical approaches to complexity
manufacturing assembly lines are often regarded as prototypical (Table 3).
examples of linear systems, whole manufacturing plants, and the In fact, most of the included papers (79.8%) had no commit-
broader supply chains of which these are part, may be highly CSS ment to complexity theory as a framework underlying study design
[50]. and data analysis. Nevertheless, most of these studies presented an
operational definition of complexity that accounted for some of the
M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148 139

Table 2
Framework of data analysis.

Categories of data analysis Relevance from the research question Information searched in the papers and analytical
perspective procedure

Theoretical approaches to To investigate how the complexity Definitions of complexity and complexity theory (if
Links with complexity
complexity concept is being used in lean research any) adopted. This information used to be explicit
either in the Introduction or Literature review sections.
Complexity of the systems in To evaluate if the systems addressed Characteristics of the context (e.g. number of
which LP was implemented had attributes of complexity employees, suppliers, clients, hands-off).
Compatibility between the To investigate whether the analytical Analytical methods employed. Methods were
methodological approach and methods were compatible with the considered appropriate if they accounted for
the nature of complexity nature of CSS non-linear interactions and analyzed relationships
between attributes of complexity [5,30,39]. This is a
pragmatic criterion that accounts for core
characteristics of complexity, since there is no widely
accepted framework to define what counts as a
methodological approach fit for complexity.
Contribution of LP to manage How complexity is managed by LP Examples of how LP impacted on the attributes of
Implications for complexity complexity.
practice Barriers to LP in CSS To what extent the barriers arise from Examples of how complexity attributes created
complexity barriers to implement LP.
Side-effects arising from LP in To identify side-effects of adopting LP Examples of unintended or undesired consequences of
CSS in CSS LP, which could be at least partially due to complexity
Whether complexity is always To investigate what portion of Examples of how complexity attributes were beneficial
detrimental do LP complexity should not be removed or detrimental for LP.

Fig. 2. Distribution of papers per sector.

Table 3
Studies that adopted theoretical frameworks aligned to complexity science.

Refs. Theoretical framework Examples of assumptions of the underlying theory

[6,7,17,43,51–54] Complex Systems Theory Complex systems are open and present nonlinear behavior
[55,56] Realist Evaluation Interventions are social products triggered by mechanisms that are specific to the context
[50,57] System-of-Systems Systems are composed by a set of interrelated subsystems
[21,58] Normal Accidents Theory Disruptions are an undesired outcome from interactions, which are unavoidable and unpredictable to some extent
[25] Actor-Network Theory Individuals are linked together in socio-technical systems
[59] Chaordic Systems Thinking Coexistence of order and chaos within system’s boundaries
[60] Morin’s Principles Reality is not objective, but rather a social construction
[61] System Dynamics Complex systems present several feedback loops
[62] Viable System Model Sustainable systems are adaptive and self-organizing
140 M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148

Table 4
Definitions of complexity adopted in the selected papers.

Definitions Attributes of CSS Refs.

Complexity as interrelated elements Large number of interrelated processes, suppliers, individuals and materials. Examples [63–66]
include supply chain management and processes with multiple hands-off.
Complexity as diversity of elements Multiple requirements of customers, multi-model lines, different quality standards, [67–70]
products with thousands of different components. This definition is usually adopted in
processes opened to customization and supply chains.
Complexity as uncertainty and dynamism Uncertainty about internal processes, as well as the rate of change of the external [8,71–73]
environment. This situation is present, for example, when product lifecycle is short.
Complexity as multiple competing goals Pressure for quality, cost, safety, environmental regulations, responsiveness and low [74–76]
inventory create trade-offs, as a result of pursuing competing goals.
Complexity as shared and scarce resources The scarcity of resources and their sharing among diverse users trigger interactions and [77–81]
may compromise organization’s ability to absorb variability. Examples of this definition
are presented in manufacturing and in healthcare settings.
Complexity as technical difficulty Technical requirements of the product, dimensional constraints and perishability are some [82–84]
of the attributes posed as technical difficulty. Technical difficulty requires the use of highly
specialized resources, which in turn tends to increase couplings. Examples of complexity
as technical difficulty include aircraft manufacturing and Intensive Care Units.

complexity attributes listed in Table 1, which justifies their inclu-

sion in the sample. Six main complexity definitions were identified High detail and low dynamic High detail and high
complex dynamic complex
(Table 4).
As a drawback, the definitions of complexity presented in Table 4 [51] [68] [66] [74] [63]
are either unidimensional or bi-dimensional, in the sense that none [113] [122] [69] [125]
of them includes more than two of the complexity attributes listed [21] [25] [7] [55] [84]
in Table 1. Thus, these complexity definitions are reductionist to [99] [67] [86] [70]
[89] [90] [91] [81] [92]
the extent that interrelations between attributes are neglected. [126] [95]
There are theoretical and practical implications of adopting nar- [83] [93] [72]
row definitions of complexity. For instance, while LP may reduce
interactions in certain sub-systems of a broader system, the over-
all complexity may not necessarily decrease. In fact, the remaining
Low detail and low dynamic Low detail and high
parts may increase the diversity of their functions to compensate complex dynamic complex
for the eliminated interactions, which in turn may give rise to new
unintended interactions. Empirical evidence of this phenomenon
[123] [124]
was found by Ref. [85] in a blood sampling process. As a result of
reducing non-adding-value activities, the phlebotomist no longer
needed to walk to the waiting room to call the next patient; patients [87]
themselves went to the sampling room by looking at an electronic
display based on a queuing system. However, some patients did not
understand the new system or ignored the electronic call because
they wanted to be seen by specific phlebotomists. As such, the
diversity of functions (and interactions) performed by the recep- Fig. 3. Systems studied according to their complexity level. Note: the relative posi-
tioning of the references in the quadrants is random, and thus it does not convey the
tionist increased, since she then had to manage patients to ensure
existence of any differences in the complexity level within quadrants [122–126].
compliance with the queuing system [85].

well-known classification of the complexity of systems in general

4.3. How complex were the systems in which LP was by Perrow [30,p. 97] takes a similar approach to ours.
implemented? Sixty-three out of the 94 papers did not present sufficient infor-
mation to support the intended classification. This is a drawback of
A tentative classification of the complexity level of the sys- these studies in itself, since any claims on the impacts of complex-
tems subjected to lean interventions was carried out (Fig. 3). This ity cannot be fully verified, given that the complex nature of the
classification was based on information available in the analyzed studied systems was not clearly described. The papers that had the
papers, which indicated evidence of the level of detail (e.g. num- required information were mostly case studies, which is consistent
ber of workstations, number of employees, number of suppliers, with the emphasis placed by that research strategy on describing
product mix) and dynamic complexity (e.g. dependence among the context.
activities, production routes, common mode connections, shared Most of the papers (58%) included in Fig. 3 are located in the
resources, ambiguities). This objective information presented in the top right quadrant which indicates that LP was used in highly CSS,
papers made it possible a relative comparison between the studied such as patient care in emergency departments [55,72]. The system
systems, thus enhancing the internal validity of our analysis. Nev- addressed by [7] (F-22 jet manufacturing), for example, was com-
ertheless, the placement of the systems in the quadrants of Fig. 3 posed of approximately 5000 workers and 1100 suppliers. Ref. [68]
is also based on our judgment, since there are no reliable ways of analyzed the supply chain of a laptop manufacturer, which involves
measuring and comparing detail and dynamic complexity across the coordination of hundreds of discrete suppliers, many quality
sectors, neither for defining thresholds between levels of complex- standards and quality controls. Ref. [21] studied a steel processing
ity [30]. Our approach to place systems in Fig. 3 can be interpreted plant with over 1200 customers in various industries, which make
as an operationalization of the critical realist philosophical view of operations highly interactive.
complexity adopted in our study (see Section 2), which combines The top left quadrant accounts for systems with high detail level
objective and subjective perspectives. It is also worth noting that a but low dynamic interactions. Studies that focused on manufac-
M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148 141

turing assembly lines and warehouse management were included were impacted by reducing instruments in the operating room,
in this quadrant, since their level of predictability is relatively and how the freed-up capacity in the sterilization department was
high (e.g. work at the front-line can be standardized to a large used. It is possible, in principle, that since the time spent to pre-
extent) and unexpected and undesired interactions are not as likely pare the operating rooms decreased, more surgeries may have been
as in the top right quadrant. One example refers to the manu- scheduled, thus stressing other systems, such as bed management.
facturing of clutch discs which encompassed 150 products with It is also noteworthy that the role played by leaders aligned with
30–40 different components each [86]. The operation, however, lean principles was missed by the reviewed studies as a strategy for
was conducted in eight workstations with dedicated operators, and coping with complexity. Lean leadership is a key for successful LP,
therefore dynamic complexity was considered low. Another exam- and it involves the development of a particular set of beliefs, behav-
ple, from warehouse management, describes a lean approach to iors, and competences [100,101]. Thus, it is reasonable to assume
a system composed by over ten million parts, which represented that lean leadership can tackle some of the factors identified by
more than 10,000 different items. Although detail complexity was Ref. [24] as contributors to imaginary complexity. For instance, lean
high, interactions between them were quite inexpressive [67]. leaders are more likely to be aware of the details of work-as-done
The bottom-left quadrant encompasses four studies that eval- at the front-line, and thus they tend to be more capable of finding
uated fairly linear systems. For example, Ref. [87] described the problems and issues in a process. This supports the management
modelling of bricklaying processes as complex. However, the study of the factors referred to by Ref. [24] as lack of observer experi-
reported that this system involved repetitive tasks and it was com- ence and lack of observer capability − in other words, a lean leader
posed by only six operations and seven workers. This seems to be may perceive a certain process as less complex than a traditional
in line with our findings presented in Section 4.2, which indicated leader. Divergent viewpoints, which is another factor identified by
the narrow definition of the term complexity by many studies. Ref. [24] and that can make imaginary complexity to fester, may
Lastly, no papers were assigned to the bottom right quadrant. also be reduced due to shared beliefs developed as a lean culture
Anyway, LP could certainly be implemented in systems character- gets matured.
ized by high dynamics and low detail complexity. This could be the
case, for example, for lean startups, which tend to be small compa- 4.6. What are the main barriers to LP in CSS?
nies, and therefore have relatively few parts, but are highly dynamic
in nature [88]. Although barriers to LP implementation have been investigated
by several studies [102], these have not taken a complexity per-
4.4. Was the methodological approach compatible with spective − of course, this is not exclusive with the possibility that
complexity science? barriers identified in earlier studies are complexity-related. Fur-
thermore, barriers pointed out in literature are usually associated to
Papers were analyzed according to the compatibility between specific sectors, such as healthcare and public services [103,104]. In
the research method and the nature of CSS. An overview of the this respect, a complexity perspective may provide a fairly general-
methodological approaches adopted by the papers which inves- izable account of barriers, since similar complexity attributes can be
tigated highly detailed and highly dynamic systems (top right present across sectors. Moreover, the intensity of the barriers can be
quadrant of Fig. 3) is presented in Table 5. moderated by the complexity level of the system, which is a propo-
Based on our data analysis criteria (see Table 2), ten out of sition that needs empirical investigation in future studies. Thus,
the 18 papers listed in Table 5 adopted methods unfit for com- we searched for barriers associated with complexity attributes, as
plexity, since they did not account for non-linear interactions nor follows:
jointly analyzed relationships between attributes of complexity.
For example, Ref. [90] investigated lean adoption in the discharge (i) Limited suitability of lean principles and practices: although
process of patients at a 651-bed hospital. Although the study recog- lean principles and practices are not in conflict with the nature
nized that the discharge process involved the coordination of many of CSS [52], they may be either insufficient or need adapta-
agents (e.g. physicians, nurses, patients), the improvement strategy tion in order to address complexity [8]. This limitation arises
relied on process mapping tools, which did not capture non-linear from the intractability of CSS, in which the intensity of some
interactions, multiple value wishes, parallel interactions, feedback complexity attributes cannot be reduced below a certain (high)
loops, and trade-offs. In fact, findings suggest that while complexity threshold, which undermines the performance of LP [4,98]. For
has been explicitly recognized by many studies, this is not always example, the limitations of the kanban system in environments
accompanied by changes in the analytical approaches. in which the demand is unstable have been pointed out by
several studies [105].
4.5. How is complexity managed in LP systems? (ii) Difficulty to establish cause-and-effect relationships: CSS
have emergent properties and, as a consequence, linear cause-
The literature consulted indicated that lean principles and prac- and-effect relationships cannot be assumed. For example, Ref.
tices have been used to manage several sources of complexity. A [106] heavily criticizes the use of the five whys technique,
summary of the evidence is presented in Table 6. which is commonly associated with LP, as a tool for the analy-
Although all studies presented in Table 6 argue that complexity sis of incidents in healthcare. Furthermore, waste types are so
was reduced due to LP, measurements were based on proxy mea- interrelated that it is not simple to remove one without creat-
sures such as lead time, total inventory and quality. For example, ing others [107]. To compensate for this, lean adoption in CSS
the elimination of unnecessary instruments in an operating room must adopt a slower pace [17] and make use of a ‘sense and
[95] means that there was a reduction in the diversity of elements respond’ strategy, which means conducting small experiments
that compose the system, and thus interactions were also more pre- and assessing how the system behaves, rather than planning
dictable. Thus, the system possibly became less complex at least in and deploying large projects at once [7].
the ‘diversity’ and ‘interactions’ dimensions. (iii) There are no clear-cut boundaries between waste and value:
Nevertheless, the results presented by the reviewed studies are as complexity increases, boundaries between waste and value
limited to the intervention site, and then broader impacts of lean become blurred [108]. Both waste and value can be emergent
on other systems and side-effects are not taken into account. For properties, and due to this, value may emerge from a series of
instance, in the study by Ref. [95] it is unclear how other systems activities that, in isolation, are waste − the opposite reason-
142 M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148

Table 5
Methodological approaches to investigate high detailed and high dynamic systems.

Refs. Objective System studied and economic Methodological approach Is it in line with complexity science?

[66] To introduce cross-functional Installation of seismic isolation Cross-functional process No, since the method captures hands-offs,
process charts to evaluate bearings (Construction) charts but not other attributes of complexity
construction projects under lean
[68] To devise a decision-making Supply chain of laptop Framework to support No, since the framework is based on a
framework to aid waste manufacturing (Electronic waste elimination in lean causal tree, which assumes linearity
elimination in supply chains equip.) supply chains
[72] To find the best combination of Emergency Department Process mapping No, since process mapping assumes
resources that will reduce the (Healthcare) linearity
non-value added time and lead
[81] To evaluate the efficiency of Health Anesthesia Department Value Stream Mapping No, since Value Stream Mapping assumes
Information Systems in optimizing (Healthcare) linear interactions
[84] To propose a decision-making Aircraft manufacturing Framework for aiding No, since only the attribute uncertainty (or
framework to choose among (Aerospace) decision; computer variability) was taken into account
different improvement programs simulation
[89] To describe the potential of lean in Mental healthcare delivery Framework to relate lean No, since it advocated the possible benefits
a mental healthcare system system (Healthcare) and Evidence-Based of a set of lean tools in isolation
[90] To examine lean adoption in a 651-bed tertiary teaching Process mapping No, since process mapping assumes
patient discharge process hospital (Healthcare) linearity
[91] To describe the benefits of lean at Pediatrics Emergency Qualitative descriptive No, since it describes the results achieved
Seattle Children’s Hospital Department (Healthcare) analysis without assessing for the mechanisms that
made changes possible
[92] To compare the practices Civil aerospace industry Framework of the expected No, since lean practices were approached
employed in civil aerospace with a (Aerospace) characteristics of a lean isolated
typical lean sector (automotive) company
[93] To assess an alternative system to Emergency Department Linear regression No, since the evaluation focused only on
triage patients (Healthcare) indicators before/after the proposed
changes, without accounting for the
mechanism activated
[51] To assess lean in an environment F-22 jet manufacturing Conceptual framework to Yes, since it addressed complexity as an
characterized by novelty and (Aerospace) relate complexity and emerging property and accounted for
complexity novelty concepts non-linear interactions, novelty,
uncertainty and detail complexity
[7] To take a deeper look into the F-22 jet manufacturing Conceptual framework to Yes, since the analysis explicitly addresses
mechanisms by which lean affects (Aerospace) relate LP, learning, novelty feedback loops, emergent properties and
production costs and uncertainty interactions
[55] To evaluate 7 different lean Emergency Department Qualitative descriptive Yes, since the description accounted for
interventions at the same hospital (Healthcare) analysis detail complexity and mechanisms (i.e.
[21] To investigate the relationship Steel processing plant with Binary logistic regression; Yes, since the explanation for the
between complexity, coupling and more than 1200 customers Qualitative descriptive phenomena accounted for interactive
supply chain disruptions from various sectors (Steel analysis complexity and coupling
[25] To investigate the dynamics Pathology unit of a hospital Qualitative descriptive Yes, since it describes the success of lean as
involved in process improvement with high levels of uncertainty analysis an emerging phenomena from people
interventions (Healthcare) interacting to support changes
[63] To investigate the potential risk of Supply chain of two major Qualitative descriptive Yes, since it addresses interactions and the
‘lean thinking’ in an environment construction projects analysis role of slack to cope with uncertainty
with high levels of complexity and (Construction)
[74] To explore the complexity and Supply chain of the automotive Qualitative descriptive Yes, since it describes the impact of
dynamics of lean and agile sector (Automotive) analysis interactions, unexpected variability and
strategies in automotive industry trade-offs
[83] To assess how physicians Intensive Care Unit Qualitative descriptive Yes, since it describes how conflicting
understand care in the ICU Context (Healthcare) analysis goals, the high level of details and
uncertainty make it difficult to define what
counts as value and waste

ing can also be true [7,107]. Furthermore, in CSS the existence often out of the control of any individual agent. For exam-
of multiple stakeholders is common, each holding a different ple, Ref. [55] identified different outcomes after the same lean
perception of value, oftentimes in conflict [76]. For example, intervention was applied in seven emergency services in a
Ref. [83] analyzed lean adoption in an ICU, and concluded that same public hospital. These authors concluded that contextual
compassionate care (e.g. spending time at bedside to listen to factors contributed to the differences, even though they were
patient’s needs) adds value to physicians, patients, and family, not investigated in depth. As a result of the impact of contex-
while it may be perceived as waste by managers and funders, tual factors, the use of standard lean implementation methods
since it demands spare time. across companies and even within companies is not recom-
(iv) Contextual factors are hard to manage but cannot be mended, and a tailored approach for each system is advised
neglected in CSS: contextual variables are very dynamic and [102].
M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148 143

Table 6
LP approaches to manage complexity.

Refs. Sources of complexity Attributes of complexity LP approach to manage complexity

[80] Excess of supervisors at the shop floor Interrelated elements Unnecessary complexity due to the excess of interacting
people was reduced through visual management
[94] Difficulty to link employees’ actions, customer Interrelated elements Lean pull system replaced MRP and made it easier for
needs, and results operators to know what, how much, and when to produce
[21] Excess resources may increase the potential for Interrelated elements Lean simplifies systems to the point they can operate with
undesirable interactions lower slack
[95] Operating rooms with unnecessary Diversity of elements 5S reduced the number of instruments for spine surgery from
instruments 197 to 58
[73] Different assemblies and routes makes Diversity of elements Lean product development resulted in fewer and standardized
planning more complex parts
[69] Many possibilities for customization in Diversity of elements Workload balancing and standardization facilitated the
homebuilding handling of product choice
[52] Unforeseen consequences caused by Uncertainty and dynamism Lean principles such as the use of only tested and reliable
improvement interventions technology is an asset to reduce possible side-effects
[96] Demand forecast has many sources of Uncertainty and dynamism In LP, processes start only after receiving real orders from
uncertainty associated customers, thus reducing reliance on forecasts
[97] Constant environmental changes demand Uncertainty and dynamism Computer simulations indicated LP achieved higher accuracy
rapid adaptation and ability to solve problems in solving quasi-repetitive production problems
[82] Ever-increasing costs in US healthcare without Multiple competing goals Analysis of value and non-value-added activities helps to
observable significant improvements balance trade-offs between multiple competing goals
[8] Pressure for quality, flexibility, delivery, and Multiple competing goals Internal lean practices such as SMED and JIT presented positive
cost reduction impact simultaneously on multiple dimensions, but only for
slow changing environments
[75] Pressure for quality, flexibility, delivery, and Multiple competing goals Lean practices can manage multiple goals, but implementation
cost reduction order matters. Quality and flexibility should be developed first,
then delivery reliability, and finally cost reduction
[78] Lack of space to accommodate patients and Shared and scarce resources Visual management resulted in better inventory management,
materials free rooms and improved flexibility for patient placement
[81] Shortage of resources in terms of technical Shared and scarce resources VSM and A3 helped to simplify processes and freed up
staff and room availability resources
[76] Healthcare providers struggle to deliver care Shared and scarce resources A lean-based program was designed to relieve time to care in
under time constraints the NHS, with positive results
[93] Patient’s illness request expertise and valuable Technical difficulty A fast-track process (an abstraction of a ‘production cell’) was
resources created to attend patients with similar needs
[98] The production of eye lens is a very sensible Technical difficulty Improvements following lean principles and constraint-based
process. Once started, it has a minimum and a simulation indicate the possibility to reduce buffers with
maximum time to be completed minimum disruption risks
[99] Concerns about the feasibility of lean approach Technical difficulty Simulation based on value stream mapping and lean practices
to aircraft maintenance, due to low indicate a possible lead time reduction from 28 to 13 days and
repeatability of the tasks improved financial indicators

4.7. Are there side-effects arising from LP in CSS? practices such as standardization and pull production. Therefore,
authorsı́ recommendations are usually in terms of reducing com-
Although some instability is expected to occur in the early stages plexity to the possible extent, assuming that lean in itself can be an
of lean adoption [109], this may contribute to unacceptable failures effective strategy for this reduction. Some statements from these
in complex and hazardous systems, once the pattern of interactions papers illustrate these points: “lean means reducing complexity”
that maintains the integrity of the system is changed. Therefore, [112,p. 130], “it [lean] works best in predictable environments”
side-effects and negative results of LP in CSS were investigated in [73,p. 1308], and “the higher levels of unpredictability and instabil-
the reviewed papers (Table 7). ity in dynamic environments make it difficult for lean operations
From Table 7, it can be noticed that only nine studies (9.6% of the to synchronize production process and reduce inventory, which
total) reported side-effects. However, it is likely that side-effects undermines the effectiveness of lean operations” [4,p. 205].
occur much more frequently than reported in literature, since the Conversely, 14% of the papers adopt a more balanced perspec-
introduction of LP in a CSS tends to trigger a very large number of tive of complexity. While these papers recognize the problems
interactions that cannot be fully anticipated. A possible explanation created by complexity, they also stress the benefits arising from
for the few reports of side-effects may be the lack of long-term some complexity attributes, such as diversity, interactions, and
and broad evaluations of LP implementation, taking into account variability. This can be illustrated by the following statements:
other systems in addition to those focused on by the intervention. “three human factors essential to successful lean implementation:
Furthermore, the mechanisms that linked the side-effects to the communication, leadership, and workload, which are interactive,
lean adoption were not clear in the papers reviewed. We propose interrelated and dynamic” [53,p. 26], “the continuance of lean
that, in future studies, side-effects of lean be framed as emergent depends on complex interaction between a number of variables”
phenomena. This means that emphasis should be placed on the [113,p. 6610], and “product variety – and the associated complex-
identification of the factors, and especially their interactions, that ity that confronts the manufacturing plant – is therefore ‘good’ if it
set the stage for unexpected outcomes. provides market place advantages at little cost” [114,p. 353].
Therefore, a distinction can be made between complexity that
can be an asset to lean (i.e. leverage points to improve perfor-
4.8. Is complexity necessarily detrimental to LP? mance) and complexity that can be a liability. Fig. 4 presents a
proposed framework for making sense of this distinction, which
In the vast majority (86%) of the reviewed papers, complexity is based on the attributes of complexity previously mentioned. It is
is regarded as a hindrance to LP, since it creates uncertainty and worth noting that a similar distinction, albeit not focused on LP and
variability that makes it difficult the implementation of core lean
144 M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148

Table 7
Side-effects of LP.

Refs. Context Attributes of complexity Side-effects of LP

[25] Pathology unit of an UK hospital Staff support to LP relied on a complex Initial changes made the system chaotic. People
network of interacting people were insecure about the new practices.
Performance started to fall
[110] LP implementation at three hospital units (two Group functioning (interacting people) as a Lean and teamwork deteriorated at ED. Good
wards and one ED) moderator of lean group functioning was found as a prerequisite to
successful LP implementation
[111] Implementation of LP at three Ford plants in Diversity of cultural aspects, location and Different achievements at each plant. Workers
Mexico. characteristics of the work force at each plant satisfaction decreased and conflicts emerged
[7] F-22 jet manufacturing under pressure to Many interacting parts, suppliers, procedures, Recurrent introduction of new methods hindered
reduce costs and improve efficiency tools, cutting-edge technologies learning capacity. Small changes caused large
[107] Simulation model to evaluate trade-offs in Uncertainty on demand and number of Higher complexity scenarios increased
removing interconnected forms of waste machines/operators overproduction to compensate for uncertainty
[6] Adoption of lean practices in supply chains Trade-offs, increasing globalization and LP is likely to remove slack (inventory) in supply
outsourcing makes supply chain complex chains, thus making systems more interactively
[63] Adoption of lean practices in construction Construction involves many suppliers, Indiscriminant use of LP removed slack and made
projects materials and highly interdependent activities the system more vulnerable to uncertainty
[55] Same hospital-wide lean-inspired intervention Opening hours, unit size, heterogeneity of More complex services (e.g. surgery) failed to
at seven emergency services people, rotation of physicians, and technology sustain improvements, while less complex (e.g.
levels as drivers of complexity gynecology) succeeded
[80] Manufacturing company adopting LP Unnecessary complexity caused by the excess Dismissed supervisors were assigned to new
eliminated the necessity of many supervisors of interacting people at the shop floor functions of planning and support, which they
at the shop floor found more stressful

referring to necessary and unnecessary complexity, has been made elements will be a valuable slack or a waste in the future. A similar
by other authors in the broader operations management literature point is made by Ref. [117] in the analysis of safety in CSS. According
[16,115,116]. to this author, accidents and safe work are equivalent in the sense
According to Fig. 4, attributes of complexity can either hinder that the same variability sources are present in both situations; the
lean or support it, depending on the context. For example, peo- nature and intensity of interactions are what makes the difference
ple interacting using lean in order to pursue parochial interests between outcomes.
(e.g. self-promotion at the expenses of the interests of the broader
group) is a source of ‘liability’ complexity. Conversely, people inter- 5. Conclusions
acting to solve problems are a source of ‘asset’ complexity. The
same reasoning is applicable to the other complexity attributes. 5.1. Contributions of this study
Furthermore, value and waste are located in the overlap zone since,
in practice both emerge from the same interacting factors, whose The research question that guided this study had been stated as
interactions cannot be completely anticipated. For example, it is follows: how does LP deal with the complexity of socio-technical
not possible to predict, with complete certainty, if the diversity of systems? This question was addressed through a systematic lit-

Fig. 4. Asset and liability complexity, from the perspective of LP.

M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148 145

erature review of LP in CSS, which relied on a data analysis operations management literature not focused on LP. In fact, car-
framework that included seven categories, relevant from theoret- rying out a wider review on the relationship between operations
ical (i.e. complexity concepts and theories, level of complexity, management and complexity is an opportunity for future studies.
and methodological approaches) and practical perspectives (i.e. However, the present review confirmed that firms are relying on
management of complexity, barriers, side-effects, and ambiguity LP to cope with complexity, and therefore the lean perspective is
of complexity attributes). This distinction between theoretical and relevant from both practical and theoretical perspectives.
practical categories was a compromise solution, since they have
interactions. In itself, the data analysis framework is a contribution 5.3. Agenda for future research
of this study, to the extent that it may be a basis for similar litera-
ture reviews focusing on the relationship between complexity and This literature review identified theoretical and practical gaps
other operations management paradigms – e.g. agile manufactur- regarding the use of LP in CSS. These gaps set a basis for a pro-
ing, theory of constraints, and six sigma. posal for future research, which is structured according to the seven
Concerning the theoretical categories, results indicated that the categories of data analysis adopted in this study, as follows:
complexity concept has been approached in a fragmented and loose
manner by most reviewed studies. Thus, there is a need for taking • Theoretical approaches to complexity: although we found
a more explicit and systematic approach based on a complexity many studies that linked LP with complexity attributes, most
science lens. Furthermore, findings from the theoretical categories of them did not consider interactions between the attributes.
suggest that LP in highly CSS is often approached in a similar man- Moreover, future studies should investigate empirically how LP
ner to much more linear systems, in which lean tools have emerged. interacts with a broader set of complexity attributes, in order to
These tools (e.g. five whys) are built upon assumptions of linearity shed light on the overall effects of complexity on LP and vice-
which do not hold in CSS. versa. These interactions are likely not to be trivial, and mixed
Regarding the practical categories, results that stand out refer impacts may be expected. Both surveys in large samples and
to the need for evaluating the impacts of LP in the long-run and case-based research may be fruitful in this line of investigation.
on broader systems, which are not limited to the intervention site.
Indeed, interventions in one part of CSS reverberate over the whole • Complexity of the systems in which LP was implemented:
system, and waste removed from one subsystem may reappear methods could be devised for developing lean implementation
elsewhere. This can happen, for example, when a major company frameworks which are adequate to the different levels and nature
poses demands on its suppliers, which in practice mean waste and of complexity in socio-technical systems (e.g. the structure pre-
complexity are simply being “outsourced” to some extent. Never- sented in Fig. 3). Of course, this implies, to the possible extent, in
theless, in theory, if waste cannot be completely eliminated, it could the need for a qualitative and/or quantitative assessment of the
be transferred to a less critical subsystem, with more slack and less intensity of complexity attributes previously to the start of using
safety hazards. Even though lean designers and practitioners may lean in CSS.
be applying this principle in practice, our results indicated this has
not been made explicit in the studies. • Compatibility between the methodological approach and the
Moreover, this review indicated that the relationship between nature of complexity: there is a need for developing empirically
lean and complexity is synergistic. On the one hand, lean influences tested frameworks to define whether a methodological approach
complexity by increasing some of its dimensions (e.g. diversity of is adequate for CSS. Additionally, new or revised tools should be
skills) and decreasing others (e.g. interactions arising from waste- developed to account for complexity attributes when designing
ful activities, such as rework). On the other hand, complexity or improving lean systems. An option is to use tools based on
influences lean, by posing constraints for the application of some systems thinking, which may help to anticipate the impacts of
principles and practices – e.g. work standardization cannot be as lean interventions. For instance, approaches like System Dynam-
strict as in linear systems. While less emphasized by the literature, ics and the Functional Resonance Analysis Method (FRAM) [119]
findings also suggested that complexity can be an asset for LP. This have recently been used with this specific purpose in lean studies
is in line with Ashby’s “law of requisite variety”, which poses that a in healthcare [120,121].
system uses variety to destroy variety [118,p. 207] which implies,
for instance, that a lean system needs a certain internal complexity • Contribution of LP to manage complexity: frameworks for
in order to cope with an external complex environment. Therefore, implementing LP could make it explicit their intended ways to
lean efforts should be concerned with disentangling necessary from cope with complexity, and they also could make it clear that lean
unnecessary complexity, using the former as a lever for innova- is not only about reducing complexity. The increase of certain
tion and the development of adaptive capacity. Nevertheless, what dimensions of complexity can be an effect of LP, and this may
counts as necessary and unnecessary complexity may be ultimately have mixed impacts on performance. The definition of metrics
a matter of negotiation, involving power relations, risk perceptions, for assessing the impacts of LP on complexity is also a research
costs, and other perspectives. opportunity.
• Barriers to LP in CSS: future studies should go deeper in
5.2. Limitations understanding to what extent the attributes of complexity can
moderate the barriers to LP. Moreover, the concept of value (and
Some limitations of this research should be stressed. First, our its opposite, waste) needs to be refined to account for the per-
inclusion and exclusion criteria, as well as the databases used, may spectives of multiple stakeholders, which are often in conflict.
have neglected relevant studies. Another drawback is that we had • Side-effects arising from LP in CSS: lean initiatives should
no information to accurately assess the ‘leanness’ and the com- explore and report side-effects in more detail. This implies in tak-
plexity of the systems focused on by the reviewed studies. As a ing a broader view of the system under evaluation and tracking
result, a distinction between inappropriate lean application and how the architecture and functions of the system change over
lean strictly hindered by complexity could not be made. This was time to compensate for the waste removed.
relevant especially for the analysis of barriers and side-effects from • Whether complexity is always detrimental to LP: future stud-
LP in CSS. Moreover, our focus on LP may have omitted relevant ies should provide theories and practices to disentangle necessary
papers on the management of complexity available in the broader from unnecessary complexity. For example, while CSS must have
146 M. Soliman, T.A. Saurin / Journal of Manufacturing Systems 45 (2017) 135–148

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private organizations.