A (Very) Short History of Lean in North America and 3 Things to Make Some (New) History

In 1996, Jim Womack – arguably the father of “lean” in this country – wrote a book as a follow-up to his first book, The Machine That Changed the World. This then-new book, Lean Thinking was the book that would change the face of manufacturing for a long time. In a 1996 Harvard Business Review article Womack and Lean Thinking co-author, Dan Jones, give us five steps to start thinking lean:

1. Define value precisely from the perspective of the end customer regarding a specific product with specific capabilities offered at a specific price and time.

2. Identify the entire value stream for each product or product family and eliminate waste.

3. Make the remaining value-creating steps flow.

4. Design and provide what the customer wants only when the customer wants it.

5. Pursue perfection.

So, where would we look for the things that we need to do to eliminate waste and make value (everything but waste) flow? Well, because Womack’s system was presumably extracted from Toyota and other Japanese automotive manufacturers, one has to look at the source of Womack’s and other lean thinker’s inspiration, what he called the pioneer: Toyota.  Toyota taught its employees to look for the seven classic wastes. Taiichi Ohno, in his classic Toyota Production System, says this, “The preliminary step toward application of the Toyota production system is to identify wastes completely.” (Take care to analyze the English translation, especially the words preliminary, step, toward, application.)

In droves, we flocked to see what Toyota was doing. There we saw the artifacts: pull systems—Kanbans, a pull cord that triggered a light and a sound to get the attention of supervisors – andons, leveled work cells, and lots of visuals. Some wrote many books on lean “tools,” the things we could see when we looked at Toyota: teams solving problems using material and information flow diagrams (what Womack called a value stream map).

Many of us eagerly read the books and ran off to put those things into place. We installed pull cords. We established Kanban systems, and, through the wonders of modern technology, we added technology to them, producing “electronic Kanbans.” And what was the result? In some cases, the improvements were real, dramatic and sustained. Some companies—the ones with an existing Toyota-like culture— received those tools like seeds and nurtured them to produce much fruit. But, as with many vogue management theories, many companies applied the tools, enjoyed a quick burst of improvement, but quickly slipped back to the old way, disenchanted with the results.

Time went on and when “it” didn’t work, “it” was retooled, now including something called Kaizen Events, eerily reminiscent of the Deming-inspired Process Improvement Teams of the ‘80s when management theorists were imitating what they called “Japanese Management.”  This time, though, they combined the “blitzed” improvement with the lean tools, and the results were better, but only for a short time.  These events – often facilitated by consultants – followed the five-step pattern offered by Womack which had the appearance of – if not the substance of – Toyota’s team problem solving.

The failure was simple: you can only imitate what you can see, and you can’t see the whole system. You can observe the artifacts of an Andon system, but can you observe the heart of the team leader responding to the Andon system rapidly because he considers a problem a blessing?  Or, because he knows that the real reason the andon exists isn’t to stop the line, but to keep the line moving.  You can observe the process a team uses to solve a problem, but you can’t grasp the development of that team’s culture: the way they attack problems, the way they think about problems and the reasons driving both.

Just to be clear, I don’t credit Womack with the early failures.  He was clear: you have to focus on culture and on solving problems.   I believe that Womack and Jones and their closest colleagues knew that a management system – something to manage and apply this new way of thinking – was required.

I do blame a few other things with the fits and starts and repackaging of “lean”:

  • our need to see immediate results at the cost of building sustainable foundations
  • our “let’s hire a consultant” to do things to us or for us instead of hiring coaches to guide us to “do it ourselves.”
  • our insane idea that one size fits all and that a “best practice” is our hopeful plan for improvement

So, what’s a poor organization – bruised and calloused – to do?

Here are three things that you can do today to move forward:

  •  Go and watch a cornfield grow. I could elaborate on this idea, but it is best left to your imagination. Comments welcome.
  • Find a coach and ditch the consultant. Find the low-cost, do-it-yourself strategic partner, roll up your sleeves and follow the instructions (there are no shortcuts).
  • Stop thinking about other organizations’ best practices as your goose laying the golden egg. First, brush up on Aesop’s Fables; Google it. We’ve seen organizations “kill” the true wisdom – the “best idea” inside or behind a best practice – by trying to replicate the ‘best practice” accurately.  Think differently by asking: what’s the best idea behind this best practice and how can we adapt it to us?

A wise old Benedictine monk once said: (move) forward, always forward, everywhere forward. Shall we?

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