The following is a transcript of a talk I delivered this week that seeks to answer the question, “what is Lean?” for those who are new to Lean thinking. Each section in this post corresponds to a slide in the presentation above. You can download a free .pdf of the slide deck here.
1. What is Lean? An Introduction.
What is Lean? As an audience that is new to Lean, this is quite possibly the single, most important question that I can answer for you today. Yet, I’m going to tell you upfront, right from the start, that I am going to fail to do so.
2. What is Lean? Depends on who you ask.
You see, as a Lean community, we’ve all failed. Collectively, we’ve allowed the answer to the question of what is Lean to exist in an nearly infinite number of forms.
If you would ask, “what is Lean?” to a room of 10 people, you’d be likely to get 20 different answers. And the concerning part is that there would be no consensus around which answer was correct. Lean has been allowed to be defined at an individual level, and that is a BIG problem.
Why? Let’s look at what the data tells us about the success of our attempts to apply Lean thinking in our organizations. Now there are a lot of numbers thrown around on the topic, and this one is a bit old, but I’m not confident the story has changed much in the better part of the last decade. According to a study conducted by Industry Week in 2007, only 2% of Lean programs succeed in capturing all the goals that they set out to achieve; even worse, a dismal 24% see even “significant results”.
There’s a common saying that is popular in the Lean community, “where there is no standard, there can be no kaizen.” Where there is no standard – that is, no agreement, no collective understanding about what it is we’re doing – there can be no improvement. If we cannot begin to answer the question what is Lean in a way that we can all unite around, I fear that the 2% success rate will only become worse.
But, I am eternally the optimist, and I know firsthand the true power of Lean thinking. As long as there are people willing to learn, as you are all here today, I am hopeful that we can set things straight and progress towards a shared understanding about what Lean truly is.
3. An Obsession with Lean “Tools”
Improving any condition requires that we first understand the causes of why it exists. So, let’s start by exploring the root causes of our struggle to understand what is Lean.
I’ve had a great opportunity to teach the basics of Lean thinking to nearly 1,000 individuals in my career. At the start of each and every class, I ask a very simple question, “why are you here?” No matter the industry, the experience of the participants or the maturity of the organization, the response I see most often is the same.
I want to learn the tools.”
Lean “tools” are the most common reason that we show interest in learning what is Lean. And while we have the best of intentions, there are at least two MAJOR problems that we create when we reduce Lean down to a personal toolbox.
First, we give people what they want and we structure our teaching and application around the tools. The problem is that a tool-based approach to learning is a terrible way to learn anything!
I can give an aspiring auto mechanic the finest toolbox on Earth and teach them how to turn the wrench and swing the hammer, but that still does not enable them to diagnose and fix my car.
Imagine if we taught surgeons using the same tool-centric approach that we use to teach Lean. Medical school would be spent studying the finer details of scalpels and clamps and retractors, while leaving the understanding of basic anatomy and disease and diagnosis for the operating table. I imagine more than a few patients would be lost with this approach, just as we’ve lost more than a few could-be Lean organizations.
The second problem with the tool-based approach to Lean is best described through a story. In most of my classes, the interest in Lean tools by the students sparks further discussion. “Why do you want to learn Lean tools?” I ask. Some say that they want to improve a process or to make their work easier, and some insist they want to share new approaches with their team. But one student I will never forget gave me the most memorable, and I fear the most accurate and truthful, for why people want to learn the “tools” of Lean thinking:
I want to learn the Lean tools, so I don’t have to think so damn much.”
And therein lies the disease within the current body of Lean practice. We like the “tools” of Lean, whether we want to admit it or not, because they save us the energy of having to think. And because we want to keep our people what they want, we hire expensive consultants and so-called-senseis to teach us who are more than happy to oblige. The “tools” become the framework for education and are translated to a check-the-box model for Lean implementation.
The result? We have answered the question, what is Lean by reducing it so a set of tools that we apply without thinking, and consequentially without learning and without improving. Lean becomes something that we simply go out to our jobs and just “do”. When in fact, Lean success requires the complete opposite approach.
4. The Knowledge Production System
Now, please do not misunderstand me. I am not against the things that we commonly refer to as Lean “tools”. To the contrary, I believe that many play a crucial role for an organization to become lean. However – and this is a BIG however – to use a tool properly, we must first understand what it is that we need the tool to accomplish. And the reality is, in the practice of Lean, very few do.
And to begin to change that, we need a brief history lesson.
Right, wrong or indifferent, many of the “tools” of Lean are credited to originating within one organization: Toyota. While Toyota may not have invented the “tools”, they have been arguably the most effective at applying them within the framework of their Toyota Production System.
While it is impossible to assign a start date to the Toyota Production System, much of its development is credited to a man named Taiichi Ohno who worked at Toyota beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the post-World War II era. Information regarding the Toyota Production System did not begin trickling into the western world, however until the early 1980’s; a more widespread notoriety did not occur until 1990 with the publishing of The Machine that Changed the World, in which the term “lean” was first coined.
Over the last 25+ years since, Toyota’s methods have been studied ad nauseam, as organizations in nearly every industry have attempted to do Lean by copying the visible, tangible “tools” of the Toyota Production System. And for the most part, they have failed. But why?
I had the good fortune to study the Toyota Production System under several masters of Lean thinking who spent considerable time Toyota. On one occasion, I posed this very question to one of my mentors, expecting a complex answer. Yet, as with many of Lean’s lessons, I was struck by the simplicity of the response.
He said, “Toyota developed and refined the Toyota Production System over many decades, and in doing so, they have grasped a very simply concept. While the term Lean is not theirs, it does describe them very well. Describe being the key word. You see, whereas the western world still sees Lean as something that is to be done – as a noun – Toyota realizes that Lean can only be something that is achieved – as an adjective.”
If ever I had an ah-ha moment in my own career, this was it. When we blindly follow tools and implementation plans and checklists, we reduce Lean to something that is simply done, and we take all of the thinking out of it. In contrast, Toyota sees Lean as a condition of being – as something that is achieved – and the only way to become Lean is through a tremendous amount of learning, and thinking and improving over time.
Over the last 25+ years of studying Toyota, we’ve unfortunately gotten it all wrong. While we latched on to the tangible components – the “tools” – of the Toyota Production System, we failed to recognize their true purpose. Toyota’s tools aren’t really tools at all because by themselves, they do not fix anything. They are simply individual pieces of an integrated system which make visible to its people what has yet to be learned.
You see, we have overlooked for decades that the Toyota Production System does not produce cars, it produces knowledge.
5. People as the Ultimate Solution
To understand how the “tools” function as part of a system of knowledge creation, it’s helpful to learn a bit about the process our minds use to learn. Now, the human mind is possibly the single most complicated system in existence, however, for our sake we can discuss the learning process using a simple, yet powerful, three step model.
When we encounter a new situation, unbeknownst to us, our minds make a prediction for what to expect will happen based on its past experiences. It then uses its sensory system to detect what actually occurs. Processing in the brain compares what happened to what was expected, and we use that information to update our mental models. Correct predictions reinforce and strengthen what we know; gaps between what actually happened and what we thought would happen produce updates to our mental models, resulting in more accurate expectations for similar future situations. In other words, this is a simple process for how we learn and improve what we do over time.
The Lean “tools” that we love so much – the individual components of the Lean system – were designed to complement this learning process in three ways. “Tools” like standardized work and heikunka (levelled production) set expectations very clearly for what should occur, while concepts like genchi genbutsu (go and see), the genba (where the work happens) and andon (empowerment to stop the process and highlight problems) create a sensory system of sorts to create visibility of the current state of operation. Learning is facilitated by studying the gaps between expectations and the current state to understand why they occurred and how to close them in the future. “Tools” such as PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act), A3 thinking and kaizen (continuous improvement) put this deep thinking into routine practice.
Most organizations today struggle to become Lean because they turn to Lean “tools” for solutions to their problems, effectively removing the thinking needed to grow and improve over time. On the contrary, effective Lean systems apply the “tools” specifically to fuel the learning process, creating new knowledge for true continuous improvement. In truly Lean organizations, “tools” are not the solution; People are the solution.
6. Everybody, Every day
Given that learning is the driver of improvement, it only follows that more learning equals more improvement and thus, greater results. People are the only asset in an organization that can learn, and its critical to realize that all of us have this innate ability. Therefore, successful Lean management systems make people development their primary focus, engaging all people in the process of improvement.
Approaches to improvement fall flat when accountability is bestowed on certain subsets of an organization. Assigning improvement as a management responsibility or to specialists – often with funny colored belts or inflated titles – inhibits the learning potential of the organization. In time, a rift grows between the people trying to improve the work and the people actually doing the work due to a lack of mutual understanding, feelings of inferiority, and conflicting motivations.
Because all can think and all can learn, Lean organizations understand that all people at all levels can be the drivers of improvement. Moreover, those best suited to improving the way the work is done are those that actually do the work. Maximum improvement is achieved in Lean organizations by engaging everybody, every day in a system that drives continuous improvement of the ways that we work.
7. What is Lean? Respect for what makes us human.
At Toyota, there is a principle that is absolutely central to the way that they operate that is commonly referred to in English as Respect for People. As with any translation, there’s a bit of context that is lost in translation, which leaves its true meaning up for debate. It’s likely that the true meaning of the phrase is closer to Respect for Humanity, about which there is much discussion in the Lean community about the true intent behind the principle.
Based on my study of the Toyota Production System, I have a unique perspective that is quite literal. Respect for humanity is a respect for what makes us human – that which truly sets us apart from everything else in the known universe. And I truly believe what makes us human is our unlimited potential to learn and think and grow and improve continuously across the continuum of time.
To respect what makes us human is to show a deep admiration for our abilities. And in the business sense, we show respect through our investments in the form of money, time and energy. Lean organizations invest in people first and foremost, because they are quite possibly the only asset in a business that becomes more valuable over time. Machines and equipment break down, technology becomes outdated, and facilities fall apart. But the human mind never loses its ability to learn, becoming more valuable with each passing moment.
In other words, a Lean organization shows the ultimate respect for its people by placing them in a system that maximizes human potential. That is the true power of Lean.
I started today by attempting to answer the question, “what is Lean?” And, as I predicted, I have failed to do so. While a standard, universal of the term Lean may continue to elude us, I hope that you take away today one thing that will move us all in the right direction.
At its very core, Lean is about people and a respect for what makes us human . . . a limitless potential in each and every one of us to think and to learn and to improve.
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