“Find the Bright Spots”

One of the problems facing all of us – from pundits to practitioners alike – is “too much information.” We look at a complex state, like the way Toyota operates, try do describe it in great detail, break it down, build models, and say “OK, make it look like that.”

So one of the most common questions is “Where do I start?”

The platitude is “start with 5S” but in reality, that doesn’t really work very well either. It doesn’t really drive a cultural and behavioral shift. If you have to audit people into compliance, that’s how it is working for you.

What we know today is that TPS is much less about how it looks than it is about what people do.

I have seen a handful of other companies who have managed to get a true continuous improvement culture running (at least for a while). There is something very different about them vs. a standard “lean implementation.”

Yet these companies have the same caliber of people, the same resources, the same baseline problems as everyone else. They operate in the same environment, and yet operate differently.

A key point in Switch is “find the bright spots.” That is – look at who has success in the same environment, and grasp what few factors are actually making a difference.

Perhaps, rather than “looking for waste” we ought to be looking at what few things make a big difference. Just a thought.

If The Student Hasn’t Learned…

The teacher hasn’t taught.

This article, titled “Why China is Not Ready for Lean Manufacturing” presents an account of trying to teach “lean manufacturing” in a Chinese factory. The experience is summed up in a couple of key paragraphs:

The team arrived in Dongguan and went to work giving an overview class on Lean techniques. The factory workers seemed attentive and interested in learning. The next day, the Silicon Valley Lean team gathered the people from the assembly line to begin the process of working on the quality problem. After 3 hours, the Lean team ended the session in utter frustration. No one participated. No one would identify problems on the line. No one knew how to approach gathering or analyzing data. No one volunteered.

So what happened? The training was adequate and the Lean principles and methods are sound and easily understood. Why weren’t the Chinese factory workers participating?

Why indeed?

The author’s conclusion is that Chinese worker’s culture and values conflict with the idea of collaboration and contributing ideas to improve production quality and efficiency.

But the article brought up two separate thoughts.

First, there is nothing magic about Western culture. These concepts can, and do, fall just as flat in the USA and Europe as they did in this factory. The problem in these cases has less to do with the national culture, and more to do with attempting to apply a rote approach to teaching.

Second, the result cited here was exactly the opposite of my own experience in a Chinese factory.

It took some persistence, and it took some deliberate steps to remove fear from the factory floor, but in the end we had these Chinese workers making some very innovative contributions.

400ArmBoringMock01 This photo is an old boring mill. It was a slow old boring mill. We needed to squeeze cycle time out of the process to make the projected takt time. We showed the workers some photos of other teams’ efforts to mock-up fixtures so they could quickly try out ideas. The workers, after a few false starts, constructed what you see here, and ended up with a pretty good set of fixtures that could be loaded and unloaded quickly. After some trials, they figured out on their own that they could fit two fixtures on the platform, which allowed them to be unloading and loading one while boring on the other.


One of the machinists complained that the machine could run faster if it had a liquid cooling system. With encouragement, he designed and built a simple, but working, cooling system for the cutting tools. (The steel box in the foreground with a pump on it.) The clever part was the chip filter made from a bottle cap and a nail.

400BucketCellMock01 Another team was working on a welding cell. They ended up designing and fabricating more efficient fixtures than had been provided by the engineers. Then they set out to develop the most efficient way to get parts positioned, to load them quickly into the fixture, and weld up the part.



What was different?400CellWorkDesign

First, we didn’t do any classroom education. Not quite true. We showed them photos of really good welding fixtures that had been designed by a sister company. That took about 30 minutes. We explained what features made those fixtures good. Then we continuously encouraged them to try things so they could learn on their own. And try they did.

We didn’t ask them to go beyond mock-up. We fully expected to take their ideas, turn them over to engineers to get them finalized and drawn up, then have the fixtures fabricated. But the workers took it on their own initiative to dig through the (embarrassingly large) amount of scrap metal out back, bring in what they needed, machine parts, scrounge others, and built their fixtures in steel.

A number of ideas were things I could clearly see would not work. I knew that heat distortion from welding would make a particular fixture design difficult (impossible!) to unload after welding. I could tell them it wouldn’t work, or I could let them try it on their own. I chose the path that would engage their curiosity and let them learn through experience. They became better welders for it.

Honestly – this was a slow time while we were working out other issues with market positioning, sales, design and sourcing decisions, and most of this activity was intended to keep people busy and engaged. But what we ended up with was production-ready work cells, all built upon ideas from the workers.

So why did I tell this little story?

First, I will admit that I was pretty proud of these guys. This was a few years ago now, but it was fun blowing away everyone’s stereotypes about Chinese factories and Chinese workers.

But I wanted to make a key point.

Instead of looking for cultural reasons why “this won’t work here” we kept faith that, if the initial response was silence and non-participation, there was something that we needed to address in the way we taught, and in the environment we were creating.

Indeed, what the Chinese culture brings to kaizen is a centuries-old tradition of improvising with what you have to get something done. This is a great strength that can be hard to find in cultures with longer traditions of wealth.

Just as we were encouraging these workers to try things so they could learn what did work, we had to do the same thing. We didn’t give up after three hours. Eventually we managed to remove the fear and bring out the best these people had to offer.

Classroom education is actually a very poor way to teach people how to study a process, understand it and improve it. Sometimes it kind of works, but I think that is because it is marginally effective if all of the other conditions are right. Perhaps in some cultures that starting point is past the limit of what classroom education can handle. That isn’t a problem with the culture, it is revealing the inherent weakness in the approach.

There is no cookbook. There is only a clear objective, and good faith effort to keep trying until a solution is found.

Epiloge: Yes, this factory got into production. However the parent company could never get traction in this market with this product and recently made a decision to close this plant and pursue a different strategic direction. That is not a reflection at all on the people who did the work in these photos.

leanblog.org “10 Lean Things Not to Say”

Fellow blogger Mark Grabon recently posted “10 Things I Wish Lean Practitioners Wouldn’t Say in 2010” on his leanblog.org.

I like it enough that my thoughts won’t fit in an appropriate comment on his blog, so I’ll write them here. Go back and read his post first, though, or you won’t make sense of this one.

Added last: This turned into a stream of consciousness that ranges on a variety of topics. You are getting a bit of insight into how my mind works here.  🙂

“Lean them out” — “Get them lean” — “What would lean say?” — “Is that lean?”

In the context of “lean production” or “lean manufacturing,” the word “lean” is an adjective. It is not a noun, it is not a verb. I would argue that you can’t even get agreement about what it means in a room of “experts.” Today we have spliced other words to it, like “Sigma” that dilute it even more – implying that it needs something else to be complete without every saying what was missing in the first place.

The word “lean” has taken on a life of its own. As Mark points out, it even issues judgments as in “What would lean say about…” as though phrasing the question this way somehow quotes an objective source instead of someone’s opinion.

Sensei says…

Aside from introducing the word “lean” into the vernacular, Womack and Jones also made having a “Sensei” an imperative. Now I am seeing consultants, even non-Japanese ones, brand themselves as “Sensei.” Worse, there are consultants and other agencies who preport to “certify you” as a “Sensei.”

As Mark points out, the Western use of the term differs from the everyday use in Japan. Our meaning likely comes from martial arts classes. When I was at a previous company, people I worked with tried to apply the term to me. Like Mark, I objected. As they were insisting, I “allowed” them to use the word “sempai” and told them that was just someone who had been in the martial arts class a week longer. In reality, the only thing that differentiates teachers and students in the business is a bit of experience and something to say. But, as I said previously, what sets apart a master is that he has mastered learning.

Counting kaizen events.

Bluntly, this is one of the most effective ways I know to derail a journey of continuous improvement. The behaviors that are driven by counting kaizen events are counter to the very things we are trying to accomplish. If you aren’t sure why, ask yourself if a team member taking his own initiative and drilling some holes in a block of wood so that he can hold his bolts is a kaizen event or not.

Variations on the theme of Buy In / Resistance to Change are pervasive in the forums and in real life. And professional kaizen practitioners are not immune to denying that someone has found a breakthrough that they hadn’t.

But, sorry folks, there is nowhere on Earth where you can avoid the necessity to understand other people’s needs and feelings and take them into account. Not, at least, where you are dealing with other people. So, even if you are in a company that totally “gets it,” you had best develop the skills to do this.

Why? Because you aren’t going to “lean anybody out” without their total, complete and enthusiastic cooperation. The reason is simple. Until they are doing it themselves, without prompting, without being pushed, without being boxed in by coercive approaches, it simply isn’t working. You can’t force people to be creative problem solvers. They have to like doing it.

This is the challenge of the true change agent. Like what I said in the previous post about job shops, if you aren’t getting clear answers about how to get people involved, you are talking to the wrong person. Try someone else.

And finally is the jargon of our community. Some of it is Japanese, other terms are inherited from other disciplines like organizational development.

Jargon has two purposes. One is it provides people in a specific field or organization a clear means of communicating with one another. The legal profession, for example, is full of Latin terms that require paragraphs to define. So are military organizations. And an organization will often have a language of its own that members use internally. You won’t know the difference between a blueline, a greenline or an IW unless you have worked in Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Toyota has this corporate jargon. They have redefined a fair number of common Japanese terms that, today, carry very specific meanings within the Toyota context. Kanban, jidoka, yamazumi and even kaizen are some of those words. That is all well and fine for Toyota. It gives them a common shorthand so they can communicate more efficiently.

The more insidious use of jargon, though, is for a group to use it to exclude others from the “in” circle. Rather than being a shorthand to enable communication within the group, jargon becomes an obfuscation to disable communication, establish a sense of mystery, and differentiate those who “know” from those who are not yet enlightened.

So how do I feel about Japanese jargon in this context? Only you know. Look in the mirror. Check your purpose. Why do you feel the need to use it? How do you feel when you use it? Do you feel that it shows you know more than someone who does not use it? Do you take pride in making elaborate explanations of these terms? If so, I feel you are doing it for the wrong reasons. I don’t say not to use it. I do say to check your intentions. Are you doing so out of respect for people, or to elevate your own status? Then act according to your own conscience.

I have gone a lot deeper into this stuff than Mark did, and I am not nearly as well organized. Ah well. You get the benefit of seeing one of my raw brain dumps.

Values Checklists

I am in the process of going through a lot of old files and filling up recycle bins. Most of this stuff was collected back in first half of the 1990’s when the world wide web was just gaining critical mass, and a half day on Alta Vista, or the brand new search engine, Google, turned up new stuff all of the time. It disappeared just as fast, so the rule was “if you want it, copy it.”

A lot of this material comes from the TQM community. But what struck me enough to sit down for a minute and write about is checklists that include values like “respect for people,” “openness and honesty” and “teamwork.”

This was an era when companies were creating “values statements” and publishing them.

Many of them followed by trying to measure compliance with those values, putting them in performance management reviews, etc.

Of course since the mid 1990’s we know better. . . don’t we?

Values are tricky things. Certainly if a company is sincerely trying to change its culture, the values are going to have to shift. The question I have is not whether this is true, but whether writing them down and trying to enforce them is an effective way to go about it.

Consider how a company with a long, entrenched culture of conflict avoidance is going to transition itself into one which truly respects people?

In a conflict avoidance culture, the people who are truly open and honest tend to ruffle feathers and find themselves in the “out” crowd, isolated in the eddies, and often are never told why.

The people who have flourished in that culture now are saying they want to change it.

Let’s assume that the handful of people at the top – whose behavior has likely been rewarded by promotion throughout their careers and possibly even molded the rest of the organization, can even see that they have not been respectful of people.

If they truly want to change the values of the organization, the only way I can see for this to happen is if they, personally, are totally open and honest that (1) What they have been doing is holding the company back, and is disrespectful of people; (2) They intend to change it starting today; and (3) Ask for help and support from others around them to make a personal change.

If these things don’e happen, then it really doesn’t matter what they put on the wall or say they want everyone else to do.

This is a tough one. It is what Peter Senge calls “personal mastery” and what Jim Collins talks about in “Level 5 Leadership.”

Honestly, I don’t think it is a hard prerequisite for a fair degree of success. I know a few companies who have done pretty will without ever addressing this issue.

But I also know they are hitting the limits of what they can accomplish. As I am someone who sees things in terms of their potential I just wanted to take a couple of minutes and toss this one out there for everyone to think about while we (in the USA at least) stuff ourselves with turkey.

Are You Ready for the Upturn?

Many pundits out there think the economy has hit bottom. If the last couple of cycles are any indication, when things start picking up again, it is going to happen fast. As people scramble to retain or gain market share they are going to want more and want it now.

And, if the last couple of times are any indication, many businesses are going to be caught totally flat footed and struggling to increase their output. I would also imagine that the “never again” vows that they made as things were going down will, once again, go out the window.

So, short of building up a lot of inventory and/or investing in excess capacity, what can you do to be more prepared?

Continue to work toward the ideal of one-piece-flow.

This does a few things for you. If you do it right, you will progressively collapse the throughput time of your process. This will make you more responsive to changes and make you less vulnerable to forecast errors.

More importantly, though, is the understanding you gain as you do this work. You want to know the cycle time constraint of each and every process in the value chain. With that information, you can predict what will constrain you from reaching any given level of production, and start to work on those constraints. That does not mean you increase production, nor does it mean that you add capital equipment. It means you know exactly what you are capable of doing, and exactly what you must do to get to the next level. In other words, you have a plan that you can put into motion at any time.

Work to standardize and stabilize your processes.

This effort helps make your work more ready for people. Many operations today are running well below their capacity, and they have lost their performance edge. Problems are going unnoticed and unaddressed because they aren’t really affecting production right now. That will change, and change fast, in a ramp-up situation.

Worse, unstable and poorly understood processes translate to long, error-prone learning cycles for new people, or current people in doing different work.

Re-energize your daily kaizen and problem solving and start seeking out the things that are disrupting the work. That investment will not only develop your ability to respond quickly and robustly to growth, it will develop people’s skills as well.

Develop your people and organization.

This will help your people become more ready for the work.

Things may be slow today, but do you know who you would put into your next leadership positions as they open up? Have you developed those potential leaders? Have you thought through how you will organize and support the work as business expands?

The more preparation you can make now, the easier it will be when you get into a fast-moving dynamic growth period. You will already have a baseline plan, so you will only need to assess the situation, modify as appropriate, and carry it out. The more of this planning you can do now, the more thinking you will be able to put into execution.

Even people who are already in leadership positions can probably use skills development. There are a few easy things you can do that will pay great dividends in a fast-flux environment.

Look into the TWI programs. These address crucial skills that line leaders need to succeed. Ideally, people would demonstrate those skills before being put into leadership positions.

The side benefit is that these programs give people skills they can use today to make the workplace safer, more consistent, and more stable. In a growth situation, Job Instruction gives you a standard method to bring new people on board, or to flex people quickly into different work and get them up to speed.

Free up as much capacity as possible.

The bottom line results of kaizen are seen primarily in the form of additional capacity – you are able to produce more with the same resources. You might not need that additional capacity right now, but if you are living within your means today, you can put that additional capacity in your hip pocket. Then, the first round of sales growth can be met without any additional resources. The better you are at kaizen, the longer you can hold your resource levels the same while growing output. The only way to get better is to practice, and just like learning to play the piano, this means practice every day.

Understand your supply base.

How well do you know your suppliers? How quickly can they respond if your needs change dramatically? Do you know which supplier controls how quickly you can increase output? Do you know at what point that bottleneck shifts to a different supplier?

The other thing to consider here is the length of that supply chain. If you are bringing in things from overseas, there is one fundamental that many people try to wish away:

No matter how hard you try, you can’t change what is on the boat.

That might seem obvious in saying it, but it is amazing how many times that four or five week transportation time ends up negating any “cost savings” in lower prices.

I am not saying this is good or bad. I am saying to look beyond invoice and transportation prices and understand your enterprise value chain as a dynamic, moving thing with a response time to change. That response time becomes critical when things are changing. Know what that response time is, and manage to it. If you don’t like the answers, you have to alter the system somehow.

Bottom line: The time to get good is now.

When you are scrambling to meet demand, “there won’t be time” for kaizen, and there will be even less time to learn how to do it. The time to get good at it is now. Your alternative is growing your cost structure at least as fast as sales are growing. Experience has shown that your cost structure likely grows faster than sales, and additional earnings come only with non-linear growth – relying on volume to make up for ever thinner margins. That might look OK in the short-term, but it is a strategy of becoming ever less efficient.

The better prepared you are for the upside, the stronger you will be the the inevitable next cycle.

Continuous Erosion

“Sustaining the gains” is a frequent topic of discussion in the continuous improvement world. Often the discussion degenerates into a rant about “management commitment.”

But in the real world, people generally don’t sabotage improvements on purpose. (Though I have seen it happen, but only once.) The mechanism is far more subtle.

Before we get into what happens after improvements are made, let’s look at a common improvement process itself.

In many companies, the primary method for making improvements is through special events or projects. These are usually planned, organized and led by a staff specialist.

Although the exact methods and words vary, the general process usually looks something like this:

  • Identify an opportunity, select an area for improvement.
  • Analyze the current state.
  • Select an improvement team.
  • Teach the team members how to apply the improvement tools.
  • Facilitate the development of improvement ideas.
  • Work with the team members to implement them.
  • Wrap up with a report or presentation, including remaining action items for management.

A variation on this is where the team is chartered, and it is up to them to identify an opportunity. This approach was more common in the late 1980’s than it is today.

This process actually works. It is capable of making pretty dramatic changes over a short period of time, often only a few days.

So why do the results erode? Or put another way, what is the problem?

Take a look at the routine decisions that are made during normal work, especially the ones that result in some change to the process. Those decisions must be made, because people have to get something done. The question comes down to whether those decisions result in improving the new process, or eroding it somehow.

Once things are in operation, some kind of unforeseen event always happens. Guaranteed. It can be something that the improvement team didn’t think of. It can be a piece of malfunctioning equipment. Maybe there is a material shortage or a defective part is delivered. The same things happen in administrative processes, only the words are different. Incomplete information arrives.

It could even be a deliberate decision. A production rate change. A software upgrade. Making room for some other activity.

All of these things, no matter how small or inconsequential, force decisions to be made. “How do we deal with this this and get production going again?”

The person making that decision is either:

  1. Fully capable of applying kaizen principles, and applies them in a solution to the problem.
  2. Is not fully fully capable of applying kaizen principles, but knows that, and seeks assistance in finding a solution to the problem.
  3. Is not fully capable, may or may not know this, and does the best he can to get production back on track.

Both (1) and (2) result in making the system better, more robust and more responsive.

(3) usually results in a little bit of erosion. Variation is accommodated, things are made a bit more complex, the layout is now less than optimal, the old process does not work as designed anymore so the team member must improvise a bit. That, in turn, introduces more variation into the process, and usually drives a cascade of these little decisions.

If there is no mechanism for problem escalation (and if there was, we would likely be in (1) or (2) in the first place), then this becomes the new way, and things are steadily creeping closer to where they were before the event happened.

Given enough time (which can be amazingly brief), the process reverts back to where it was, or morphs into something else entirely – but equally wasteful.

Meanwhile the improvement specialists have moved on to the next project. Even if the local leader did ask for assistance, they might not be available, or worse, they tell him to figure it out.

Follow this with an “audit” that dings the local leader for “not supporting the changes” and wonder why he is less than enthusiastic about this kind of help.

Here is the question I want to leave hanging out there:

What was the intent of the kaizen event? (and was that intent accomplished?)

Learn how to Learn

John Shook’s latest column on lean.org is titled “Was NUMMI a Success?” He adds some interesting thought to the mix of the ongoing post-mortem on GM and NUMMI.

John argues (successfully, I think) that Toyota’s objectives for NUMMI were to learn how to take their system outside of the safe cocoon of Toyota City in Japan; and that GM’s objectives, aside from getting an idle plant going again, were to learn how to make small cars profitibly, and learn Toyota’s system.

So both companies were in the game to learn.

But Toyota had a huge advantage.

And if there’s one thing Toyota knows how to do it is how to learn, especially where it’s important down at the operational levels of the company – a characteristic that is the embodiment of the learning organization. Toyota’s biggest strength is that it [had] learned how to learn, and it was that approach to learning that defined its approach to NUMMI from day one.

Just as strong as Toyota’s advantage here, was GM’s deficit. While they clearly learned about the system, and indeed implemented pieces of it in new plants, there is no objective evidence that GM ever really “got” that this is much more than an industrial engineering model.

It is a model about continuously challenging your understanding and beliefs.

We start teaching it deep down in the process, “Why did the machine stop?” but the intent is for this thinking to find its way to the very top and learn how to ask “Why are sales 12% under projection this month?”

Toyota has learned some hard lessons about what they did not understand in the last year. I only hope we will be able to say the same about our public gamble on GM’s learning.

Thinking About Improvement

Although it caters to the I.T. community, Tech Republic sometimes publishes pieces could have that have a wider application. Here are two of them.

In Five ways of thinking that can fell I.T. leaders, author Ilya Bogorad lists some limiting beliefs that can result in the I.T. folks being marginalized in the company. She says:

I often encounter situations where I can’t help but feel that an IT department could be a runaway success within its organization if it weren’t for the beliefs that their leader seems to hold. I want to share with you a small collection of such limiting beliefs. There are five in this list but I could have just as easily added another twenty.

Reading those five things, my feeling is that I could easily substitute the term “Continuous Improvement” where ever “I.T.” appears, and maybe a couple of other very simple edits, and most of the article really strikes home.

Read it, tell me what you think.

That article, in turn, links back to another called Costs and benefits of projects: Looking beyond the dollar sign. Same point. In this world of seemingly having to put up a positive short-term ROI for every idea, we deprive ourselves of so much innovation it isn’t funny. Just what is the ROI of “getting it right every time?” It’s pretty hard to calculate, but I’m pretty sure the opposite is more expensive.

Kaizen Express – and the Lean Enterprise Institute

The Lean Enterprise Institute has recently published Kaizen Express, an overview of the classic characteristics of “lean manufacturing” and, by implication, the Toyota Production System. As I set out to review the book, I found myself heading in two directions.

One is the content of the book itself.

Over the years, there have been a slew of books with similar tables of contents that describe the various mechanics and mechanisms observed in the Toyota Production System.

The first really comprehensive reference in English was Productivity Press’s translation of Hirano’s JIT Implementation Manual. (Originally a two volume set priced at $900, it appears it is about to be published in a second edition for around $200. I have not seen the second edition.) Back in the early and mid 1980’s, Hirano was about the only comprehensive reference out there. At Boeing we had internal-use reproduction rights, and many of us poured over those volumes, parsing every word.

Kiyoshi Suzuki’s New Manufacturing Challenge (1987) was the book we gave out to all of our suppliers. It, too, provides a pretty good overview of most of the tools and techniques. It is a good basic reference, and I still believe it really takes about three years for a practitioner to outgrow it.

At a more technical level, we have had Toyota Production System: An Integrated Approach to Just-In-Time by Yusuhiro Monden. This book goes into more depth from a system engineering standpoint, and focuses mostly on “Toyota’s production system” vs. a more generic approach.

These three titles are by no means the only ones. A couple of feet of my own bookshelf is occupied with books covering the same basic topics. I only mention these three only because they have been my workhorse references, especially in the days when I was still putting together my own mental models.

Kaizen Express is well at home with this family. It is a solid overview of the tools and techniques that generally characterize “lean manufacturing” and I can quibble with nothing that is in the book.

The presentation itself harks back to the days when all of the decent references came out of Japan. It is a bilingual book, written in Japanese language and graphic style with English translation along side.

On a sidebar note: As a practitioner, dealing with shop floor people and their sensibilities and values, I would rather use a reference that didn’t come across as so foreign. While I fully appreciate that the Japanese vocabulary is a solidly embedded part of Toyota’s culture, that is not the case elsewhere, and some Toyota-trained practitioners would do well to keep that in mind. The concepts are difficult enough to get across without having to overcome language resistance. Add to that the unfortunate truth that many countries, especially in Asia, still have vivid cultural memories of a far more malevolent Japan, and the resistance just increases. I would not give a copy of this book out in China or Korea, for example. There are others which serve the same purpose without bringing up unresolved issues. Memories and emotions run much longer and deeper in Asia than they do in the West.

All of those reservations aside, this book is a welcome review of familiar material.

Now, the second part. I want to go beyond the book itself, and look at its context. This becomes not so much a review of the book, but one person’s opinion (mine, to be sure) of the state of our communities understanding of the Toyota Production System itself.

The TPS is somewhat unique among all of the various “management systems” in the popular business press today in that it grew organically rather than being explicitly designed. Thus, rather than consult standard documents to learn about it, knowledge comes from research.

In the early days, through the late 1980’s, the topic of “JIT” or “Japanese manufacturing techniques” was a quiet, esoteric backwater of consultants and a few committed practitioners. We knew about Harley Davidson, and some of the other early adopters. Danaher was just getting started, and some of the household name early leaders were starting to gain meaningful experience and reputations. The knowledge base came from practitioners trying to make it work, rather than professional academics who are in the business of developing and testing rigorous theory.

In late 1990, everything changed. The Machine That Changed the World by Womack, Jones and Roos published the results of good, solid research from MIT and became a hot seller. It broke out of the practitioner’s technical corral, got the attention of mainline executives and managers, and introduced the buzzwords “lean production” (which later morphed into “lean manufacturing”) into the lexicon of everyday business.

This was followed by Lean Thinking which profiled a number of these companies and put Shingijutsu on everyone’s radar.

The Lean Enterprise Institute was founded shortly thereafter, and in the late 1990’s published Learning to See and introduced everyone to value stream mapping. This was the first of a series of workbooks designed to take the practitioner through the mechanics of implementing various aspects of the basic elements of modern manufacturing techniques.

These workbooks were something new. Rather than the encyclopedic approach of a single book devoting short chapters to descriptions of the various tools, these workbooks went into much more depth on a single topic, such as materials distribution, creating a work cell, the basics of heijunka or mentoring someone through solving a problem.

In the background of all of this, “lean manufacturing” became the hot topic. Writers, consultants, managers were all talking about how to “get lean” and to “lean out” a business. Hundreds of books were published on the topic, a few of them good, many of them re-hashing old stuff in new ways, a few just using the buzzwords to sell bad information.

This explosion resulted in a lot of noise pollution. What had started as peer-reviewed academic research of the automobile industry turned into the “lean industry” – a crowded, bustling bazaar with everyone hawking and touting their “solutions.” This, by the way, included a mountain of junk academic research.

But there was also some really exceptional academic research, especially out of Harvard. While everyone was busy implementing the tools of lean – the things in the tables of contents of all of those books, the success rate was a far cry from the promise. I have experienced this myself a couple of times. But Steven Spear made it the topic of his 1999 groundbreaking PhD thesis at Harvard. Let me quote, and offer my interpretation, of a few key sentences from the abstract of his dissertation.

Researchers have established that Toyota enjoys advantages in cost, quality, lead-time, and flexibility when compared to its competitors in automotive assembly.

There is no doubt here. It’s why we are all reading this stuff in the first place! And while there was considerable anecdotal evidence before that, The Machine That Changed the World offered up a solid base of good research to confirm what everybody was thinking.

Differences in generating value have been attributed to differences between the Toyota Production System (“TPS”) and alternative management systems. Distinctive tools and practices have been associated with TPS.

Those “tools and practices” are what are covered in the classic books I cited earlier. They are also what is covered in Kaizen Express if not by industry in general, certainly by the community of experts.

However, evidence suggests that merely copying these [tools and practices] does not generate the performance advantages enjoyed by Toyota. This has prompted several questions … [including] … why is it so difficult to imitate?

So we (the community of experts) were happily out the there doing the stuff that was in the books, teaching the basics, trying to implement them, and finding it generally difficult to get a lot of traction once the initial novelty wears off.

Meanwhile, the noisy bazaar continued to churn out more and more “solutions” aimed at the “gaps in lean manufacturing.”

“Lean looks at waste, but doesn’t address variation…” so “Sigma” was spliced in. Yet Toyota obsesses on stability and eliminating variation at levels we cannot even fathom.

“We need someone to implement quality in our lean company.” Hello? How can you leave out quality? Yet in our efforts to implement flow and reduce inventory, we did it all of the time!

We try to bring kaizen into administrative and creative process flows – well enough, but upon finding that the “tools and techniques” need to be adjusted somewhat, people draw the conclusion that there is more to it.

All of these things, over the last ten or fifteen years seemed to make things very complex indeed.

So we go back to the basics.

I agree with the principle. But we need to discuss exactly what the basics are.

The second paragraph of Steven Spear’s abstract is pretty clear:

… the tools and practices that have received attention are not fundamental to TPS.

(emphasis added)

Then he brings up things that the rest of us never talk about:

… the … Rules-In-Use promote distinctive organizational features. These are nested, modular [organizational] structure; frequent, finely grained self-diagnostics; and frequent, structured, directed problem solving that is the primary mechanism for training and process improvement.

(emphasis added) (For explanation of what Spear means by “Rules-In-Use” read the dissertation itself, or Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System, which is the HBR summary of his conclusions. Personally, I “got it” a lot better from the dissertation, but then he has 465 pages to make his points vs. 10 pages in the article.)

What has all of this got to do with the little green book, Kaizen Express?

I think it is a great book, for 1991.

But this is 2009. So while Kaizen Express is a welcome refresher of the mechanics, those mechanics are, according to the current standing theory, built upon a foundation of something that Kaizen Express, and for that matter, the LEI has not, to date, addressed. What is missing, in my view, is how the tools and practices outlined in Kaizen Express and its predecessors actually drive daily continuous improvement that engages every team member in the process.

Anyone out there is perfectly welcome to refute Spear’s research and make a compelling case that “the fundamentals” are, indeed, the things addressed in Kaizen Express. But to do so means bringing credible peer-reviewed, published research to the table. It means building a compelling case of documented observations that contradict Spear’s theory. Anything else is simply conjecture.

My challenge to the Lean Enterprise Institute: Your organization is unique. It emerged from the world of academia with very solid credentials, with a great mission to carry this message to the non-academic world. Because of its academic origins, LEI has a real opportunity to be the bridge between the cutting-edge understanding coming out of these top-flight research institutions and translate it into practical things the rest of us can put to use. Extend your charter to taking PhD words like “nested modular structure” and “frequent finely grained self-diagnostics” and giving the daily practitioners some workbooks that lay out how to do it.

Kaizen Express is a great little book.

LEI can do better, though, than to re-publish material that has been out there since 1988.

Theological Debates

A frequent topic in the lean.org forums is some version of “what is the difference between lean and ____” where the blank is one of the industry buzzwords. Some of the common ones are various prefixes to “Sigma.” Others are old standards such as TQM, SPC, TOC, etc. These discussions are always interesting as the various camps line up. “Lean looks at waste, while xxx-Sigma looks at variation” is a common one. Apparently “Agile” is about high-tech machinery, and of course, none of that is found in “lean.”

My put on all of this is pretty simple. It’s all the same, people.

There is nothing about TPS that excludes any level of machining technology, so long as that technology is applied as a solution to a problem rather than for its own sake. The last time I checked, Toyota, and TPS, were obsessive about stamping out variation. Constraints? Yup. You bet I know what the constraint is, and you bet I manage it tightly. If I have done everything right, my enterprise constraint is production (rather than sales), but just barely. And internally, if I have done it right, my constraint is manual work rather than technology. Why? Because every Team Member can work on improving manual work cycles. Not the case with an engineering constraint.

In the end, this is all about the rational, deliberate application of skilled problem solving, using the scientific method, aka PDCA.

If you are looking at “which one to implement” stop fretting about it. Go out to your work area, stand and watch a while, see what is stopping your good people from doing a great job, and start fixing it.