I was recently walking through a factory shop floor that was essentially a machining shop (20-odd mills, drills and turns of varying age and design) with one small assembly cell stuck at the end of the hall. In this cell, the local lean team had worked very hard at implementing all the lean tools and improved quality, productivity and eliminated WIP by going to single piece flow. They were still struggling with regular supply in small containers, for the usual organizational issues with logistics. This was not bad at all, considering the general panic about 20% lower volumes than at this point last year. They’d managed to reduce headcount faster than falling demand, and to do so without traumatizing the operators, who had participated actively to the “lean implementation.”
This, right in the middle of a tool shop with mostly idle machines, visibly disgruntled operators, crates of semi-worked parts, half dismembered machines in the midst of equally half-hearted maintenance – the very image of the bad old days of factory life. Here, I thought, I could see the very source of our difficulties with learning lean. What the lean team had done was perfectly right, and also, probably equally useless for the company. It was doing the right thing at the wrong place, and in the wrong way. How do you get out of that hole?
For several years, I’ve wondered about the slow rate at lean implementation. Recently, while discussing this topic with a genuine lean hero, Orry Fiume of Wiremold fame and author of Lean Accounting, we even wondered whether lean can be taught at all – coming from two experienced lean instructors, this is pretty scary. In general, such conversations are all about the fact that so few managers are really into doing lean for real – lacking both the motivation and the persistence to go all the way. But what about us instructors? What about the gurus and the consultants? What is our share in the difficulties with the lean transformation. Maybe we’re just teaching this stuff wrong?
With fifteen years of experimenting with lean transformation, there are two questions that keep bugging me whenever I work with some people in implementing this or that:
- Are we focusing on the right problem?
- Are we applying the tools correctly?
Focusing on the right problem is all about developing the right person, in areas where the company can get an immediate benefit, whilst improving its structural position – in effect, getting its practice closer to its business model. Applying the tool correctly is about getting the results, of course, but as a part of a rigorous PDCA cycle, so they get the learning as well. In the case of this factory, getting the dedicated lean team to improve one assembly cell while the company was overflowing with stocks of castings and machined parts because of both poor flexibility in the machine shop and poor availability of the machines didn’t quite feel like the right problem to solve, right then and there.
But more globally, as lean instructors, what is the problem that we’re trying to solve? We know what clients want. They want someone to come in, implement these gee-whiz lean techniques so that they get some cost or cash improvements and let them get on with their work. And to a large extent, many lean teachers and consultants now know enough to deliver. But is that the correct problem?
In Taiichi Ohno’s original 1973 summary the Toyota Production System (TPS), he describes TPS (as translated by Toyota veteran and lean author Art Smalley): “TPS is a series of related activities aimed the elimination of waste in order to reduce cost, improve quality, and improve productivity.” It doesn’t say “TPS is a series of best practice to apply to reach a good level of cost, quality and productivity.” In fact, if we take this definition to the letter, the issue here is not to get a team of lean specialists to implement lean techniques on line or cells, but to get the manager in charge of a section to practice a given set of activities so that they:
- Get the improvement, which is good, but most of all proves they’ve understood the problem;
- Figured out what was wrong with the process, and what needed to be fixed;
- Involved the people working in the process in finding a fix.
Think about it. If you want to teach someone how to do calculus, you’re not going to hire a mathematician to do their math exercises for them. You’re going to patiently teach them a bit of theory, and then get them to solve exercises about leaking bathtubs, running trains and so on until they know how to solve these problems by themselves. You’re going to teach them.
So what should a lean program look like? It’s a teaching program, in which every frontline manager has, on top of his or her normal job, exercises to do – specific exercises about how to improve safety, quality, productivity and flexibility of the areas they’re in charged of. Sure there are generic solutions (there is a lean theory after all, and who wants to reinvent the wheel?), and one constraint: no investment. But beyond that copying detailed techniques seen elsewhere doesn’t help. People have to figure out by themselves how to solve this typical problem, and find the specific solution to this general principle right here, in the current situation with the people they’ve got. They’re not learning to implement lean, they’re learning to solve problems and develop their (and their team’s) kaizen spirit.
And these exercises are not picked mindlessly – they have to be relevant to the business context because we want both the performance improvement and the understanding improvement. As Ohno writes in the same summary: “in problem solving the purpose must be made clear… In Kaizen the needs must be made clear.” This is where doing lean without a sensei can be tricky, because long years of experience are often needed to figure out the leverage points that will deliver results, now and tomorrow (for instance, figuring out that productivity is driven by the precision of logistics requires a few years of failing at it – it’s hard to learn this on your own.)
One might argue that this misunderstanding is the firm’s own fault, because this is not what clients want. They ask for someone who’ll do the implementation job for them. Certainly they do. But that’s also because lean has been historically presented this way. The best lean consultants in the world in terms of results they obtain for their “clients” remain Toyota. As a supplier to Toyota, a plant is likely to have 14 percent higher output per worker, 25 percent lower inventories and 50 percent fewer defects than an operation that supplies Toyota’s competitors. Sure, as Toyota they probably know the techniques better but I’ve never seen them teach any of what they know. What they do teach their suppliers is how to solve their problems and do kaizen – not in a random “kaizen event” way, but according to the principles of the TPS. As Ohno describes it: a series of related activities aimed at the elimination waste.
So, here we are, lean instructors, consultants, teachers, gurus, telling our clients they should practice hansei: stand back and reflect. But what about us? Shouldn’t we practice what we preach as well? Talking the talk is well and fine, but walking the walk of the Toyota way is accepting the mutual ownership of problems – so what is our part in the slow rate of lean adoption? And how are we going to kaizen this? Sure clients are resistant to change, slow to change their minds and so on. But what about the teachers themselves? Someone’s going to have the guts to tell the owners of this machine shop that rather than have a full team of lean experts creating the perfect lean assembly cell, they could equally focus on teaching simple self-study exercises to each of their front line supervisors (starting with SMED) and have a program that coordinates that instead. Takers, anyone?
 Iyer, A., S. Seshadri, R. Vasher, Toyota Supply Chain Management, 2009, McGraw Hil