Once Again: What Doesn’t Work

The introduction of The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership covers ground that:

  1. Has been covered before – we know all of this.
  2. Needs to be covered again, because most people act as though we don’t know it.

Simply put, Liker and Convis (legitimately) feel the need, once again, to let us know the things which reliably fail when trying to build a sustaining culture of continuous improvement.

“So let’s train some Lean Six Sigma experts to grab the tools and start hacking away at the variability and waste that stretch out lead time; this will make us more successful, both for our customers and for our business. What could be simpler?

What indeed.

I am, once again, reminded of a saying that “People will exhaust every easy thing that doesn’t work before they try something difficult that will.”

The authors cite some of the same things that we have heard before:

  • Trying to determine ROI for each individual process step, or each individual improvement, doesn’t work.
  • Trying to motivate the right behavior with metrics and rewards doesn’t work.
  • Trying to copy the mechanics doesn’t work.
  • Trying to benchmark, and copy, a “lean company” in your business doesn’t work.

Yet, even though we have been hearing these messages for at least a decade, actually longer, I continue to encounter managers who try to work this way.

The authors assert, and I agree, that this is the result of people trying to fit Toyota’s system into a traditionally taught management paradigm that is so strong people aren’t even aware that there is a paradigm, or can’t conceive there is anything else.

They are stuck inside their threshold of knowledge when the answer is beyond it.

This reminds me of the Edwin Abbot’s 1884 story of Flatland, a two-dimensional world populated by creatures who cannot conceive of “above” and “below” their planer existence.

Although his story is often read by students struggling to grasp models with four, five and more dimensions to them, it is really a story of social change and paradigms.

Our management systems are a “flatland” with Toyota’s system existing in a space that we have to work hard to grasp. We can see pieces of it where it touches ours, but like the creatures in Flatland who only see two dimensions of three dimensional objects, we only see the pieces of TPS that we can recognize.

3 Replies to “Once Again: What Doesn’t Work”

  1. First Off: Finally a good lean book released to audio. Just started listening to it and the reader is very good.

    I’m a few chapters in and have been having the same thoughts. None of it has really been new but it is all good. I also think that what might feel mainstream to people like us who talk about lean continuously in forums and blogs probably have a little bit skewed perspective. I wonder how much of what they are talking about will sound new to the average reader in the average company trying to implement lean principles. The vast majority of people (especially in leadership positions) have no idea that a lean conversion means more that the tools on the floor.

    It is definitely a great review so far and the real examples from Toyota are getting interesting. I am hoping to get a much better understanding of the Toyota career path and the overall long viewed perspective that they take. There is a great video on IndustryWeek with Wil James from TMMK:


    One of the most interesting things to me from the video is when Wil introduces all of his North American counterparts that run every factory in North America. What was so interesting? None of them were Japanese and all of them were developed within Toyota. I think that it is amazing that they have been able to fill their talent pool to the point that they don’t hire in or transfer executives.

    I think this book is shedding some light on what makes that possible.

  2. Mark,

    Lots of folks believe in “the quick fix” – for everything. Just look at the turmoil all over the world today as more and more people become frustrated as they learn that the prosperity they thought was real turns out to be a mortgaged dream. Unfortunately, these same folks seem to be demanding an equally quick fix – which will also be unsustainable.

    The same goes for Lean and Lean Leadership. Many, many executives promised – and seemingly delivered – quick fixes to companies in years gone by. (Anybody remember “chainsaw” Al Dunlap?) The fact that many of these executives seemingly delivered on their promises just propagated the myth. I think this at least partially explains why so many companies try and fail at Lean. They simply give it the same attention to detail that the last few fads required. Unfortunately, to do it right, this isn’t a fad. Maybe that’s why Toyota doesn’t seem to worry too much about many companies truly learning and doing this stuff.

    I too think Jeff and Gary have done a stellar job with this book. I wonder if Gary realizes that he may have unwittingly further propagated the myth of the quick Lean conversion with what he was able to accomplish at Dana though. Although he clearly explains the differences in the book, many looking from the outside will not see the differences. Sad.


  3. Mark, thanks for hitting the nail on the head again (and again, and again). I share your general annoyance with the prevailing paradigm and (like you, I suspect) wonder whether all-out civilization collapse or genetic mutation must occur before real comprehension of TPS can occur in US industry. Certainly it is not for a lack of analysis and examples in writing. Nor do I believe it is due to some inscrutable cultural trait of the Japanese people or their language.

    At its heart this is a question of survival, as in an overwhelming awareness that current approaches are leading to wide-spread suffering and certain extinction. In the Japanese context, as you know, crushing defeat in WWII and the apocalyptic experience of nuclear destruction wiped out much of their old paradigm.

    There must be another way (to destroy dominant paradigms on a massive scale). To me this represents the Holy Grail of the “lean transformation” we promote. In the meantime, “for every complex problem there [will continue to be] an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. (HL Mencken)

    I appreciate the analogy to “Flatland” and your refusal to ignore this core obstacle – conceptual imprisonment. In a similar, but more whimsical, vein is “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach. It has a very positive ending…as I hope does ours.

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