Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard

I have been touting Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch for some time now, so it I thought I ought to actually write about why.

If you are in the role of a “change agent” this book is your manual.

Up to this point, the bible for “organizational change” has been John P. Kotter’s book Leading Change published by the Harvard Business School.

Based on his article Eight Reasons Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Kotter outlines (not surprisingly) an eight stage process for changing a culture:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency.
  2. Create the guiding coalition.
  3. Developing a vision and strategy.
  4. Communicating the change vision.
  5. Empowering employees for broad based action.
  6. Generating short term wins.
  7. Consolidating gains and producing more change.
  8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture.

I have found it quite valuable in the past to challenge a leadership team to assess their own efforts against these factors, then listen to what the next level down has to say. There is always a large gap – what the leaders THINK they are saying clearly is much more muddled to the listeners.

Chip and Dan Heath take things down another couple of levels. They deal with the psychology – what goes on between our ears, and their process maps very well back to Kotter’s – as a much more explicit “how to.”

The Psychology of Continuous Improvement

What really hooked me into this book, though, was just how well it maps to key characteristics of a Toyota-style management system.

People in companies that are exceptionally successful with continuous improvement have the same baseline thinking patterns as people in every other company out there.

The difference is not about hiring different people, it is about how the work and the environment itself is structured. It is likely that structure wasn’t deliberate, these outlier companies just stumbled into it. But if we look at what makes them different (see “Find the Bright Spots” below), we can see they are better at dealing with the things outlined in this book.

That, to me, is encouraging because it reinforces the idea that true operational excellence is within the reach of anyone who is willing to deal with the real issues.

And – key point here – these changes are within the power of the mid-level change agent to affect. You don’t have to be “top management” or even in charge to have an impact. (You do have to work harder and more explicitly, though.)

We (like to) Think It’s About Logic – But It Isn’t.

In business we operate on the assumption that decisions are based on objective, rational analysis of facts and data. If presented with a compelling case, we say, the logical conclusion should follow.

So our efforts to enact “change” start, first and foremost, with trying to educate so that people will “understand the changes” and the “reasons why.”

If they don’t get it, we think, it is because they don’t understand the goodness, so we need to explain it better.

This thinking drives us to try to construct more compelling models and representations of “the system” in our effort to explain why it is better.

If we address the emotional aspect at all, it is usually with trying to “create a crisis” or a “burning platform” – in other words, using fear as a motivator. Or, even worse (apparently), we try incentives to manipulate behavior.

Switch uses a metaphor of the human psyche that is borrowed from Johnathan Haidt’s work in The Happiness Hypothesis.

Haight constructs a metaphor of our mind as an elephant, representing our emotional responses, and a rider on the elephant, representing the logical and rational side of our mind.

You can quickly get the idea here – the rider can influence where the elephant goes, but that’s about it. Unless the elephant feels safe going there, and trusts the rider’s judgment, it ain’t gonna happen.

Following that metaphor, Heath and Heath outline nine actions that shape how groups (and individuals) respond to changes. The book describes them in detail, with stories, examples, and structure.

Online, they have the Switch Workbook which provides a great quick-reference for the book. I highly suggest reading the book rather than trying to use the workbook as a substitute, though. Otherwise you lose a lot of context.

The overview and comments below are organized the way the key points are covered in the workbook.

Direct the Rider

Our metaphorical elephant rider is busy and stresses easily. Given too many choices, the rider becomes paralyzed and takes no action at all.

This is what happens, I think, when we present tons of general, theoretical education and then expect team members to pick up their own initiative and “improve things.”

So it is necessary to provide enough structure to allow people to focus their attention on “how to do it” rather than “what to do.” This means being far more explicit than we typically are. “Vision” is not an ethereal saying on the wall. It is a concrete description of how we want the organization to work.

In this category, Heath & Heath cover three key points that address the logical approach:

1. Find the Bright Spots

Rather than focusing on what isn’t working and trying to fix it, go find examples of where things are working and try to understand why – what makes them different.

Often there are one or two key factors involved and, once understood, they are fairly easy to educate and replicate.

Of course, to understand what makes them different, you must also understand the normal way things are done, and compare that with what you find in the positive outliers.

If I were to use Toyota-style language, I would say “understand the current condition” and use the positive outliers as the basis for a target. Then look, at a detailed level, at what small things make such a big difference. This is a classic “is / is not” analysis, but applied rather than just theoretical.

2. Script the Critical Moves

The most common theme of frustrations I hear from change agents and practitioners has to do with people “not supporting the changes.” But when I question them about what they WANT people to do, I often get a list of abstractions.

To make things even more interesting, many of us (myself included) have been taught to focus on the physical process changes rather than the behaviors required in a continuous improvement culture.

From the Switch Workbook on the Heath Brother’s web site:

Be clear about how how people should act.

This is one of the hardest – and most important – parts of the framework. As a leader, you’re going to be tempted to tell your people things like: “Be more innovative!” “Treat the customer with white-glove service!” “Give better feedback to your people!” But you can’t stop there. Remember the child abuse study [from the book]? Do you think those parents would have changed if the therapists had said, “Be more loving parents!”  Of course not. Look for the behaviors.

Another common source of frustration among practitioners is the comparison with perfection. Now there is nothing wrong with this. It is actually how we should think. But there is a difference between using perfection as your benchmark and expecting it to be achieved in one fell swoop.

By setting a limited theme that you know will advance the process, you help people focus on specific actions – you script what they should be working on, and give them permission to not try to fix everything at once.

One good way to test a theme or critical move is to ask whether or not it is “sticky.”

The other thing that helps, according to the workbook, is keeping the change within the scope of how people think about themselves. It is far easier to reinforce behavior that fits in with an existing self-image than to try to change something so fundamental.

3. Point To The Destination

Do you have a tangible objective that is “met” or “not met?”

What happens in too many “lean implementations” is that the process itself is the objective. “We want to be a lean company.”

So what?

“OK, we want all of our materials on a pull system.”

So? Why?

“We want zero parts shortages.”

Ah! That is something you can rally people around.

At the same time, avoid abstract metric targets. “Gross margin” or “inventory turns” targets might be OK in the board room, but in the real world (which, unfortunately, rarely extends into a board room), you need something tangible that people can see and experience.

Motivate the Elephant

The next three items come under the heading “Motivate the Elephant.” The elephant is the metaphor for our emotional responses to things. As much as the business world likes things to be sterile and logical, people never work that way.

Our logical decisions always follow emotional decisions. If there is a misalignment between the two, we feel great anxiety. Haidt describes “the rider” (our logical mind) as a skilled attorney who can construct a logical, sound rationale for any actions that the elephant takes.

So, where “the rider” can be paralyzed by too many options, “the elephant” needs to feel it is safe to go where the rider is trying to take him.

4. Find the Feeling

Taiichi Ohno talked a lot about waste. He described wasteful actions in ways that made it easy to see. His point, I think, was to give his managers a clear picture of just how much opportunity there was, if only they worked to make things flow.

As a sidebar, I don’t believe he made TPS about “eliminating waste” per se. He doesn’t talk about it much once he makes the initial point. Different topic.

The idea of concentrating your effort into a small model area (rather than trying to take everyone along at once) fits into this. It shows people, in a tangible way, what is possible.

The principle of “go and see for yourself” makes the current condition (and the possibilities) real to people in ways that the best PowerPoint presentation never can.

The key is to acknowledge that “rational analysis of facts and data” rarely (if ever) evokes the kinds of things that cause change.

5. Shrink the Change

When I read this chapter, I saw an immediate correlation with the process of rapid coaching cycles and target conditions that Mike Rother describes Toyota Kata. Aside from driving continuous improvement, that process seems to be almost engineered to shift the culture.

This might seem contradictory with “Find the Feeling” but Big Change overwhelms people – it scares the elephant. So while it is important to have a compelling sense of destination, it is equally (if not more) important to have a sense of immediate progress – “we are getting somewhere.”

In the book, the authors give a couple of great examples. In one, they outline an experiment with customer loyalty cards for a car wash. Two groups of customers were given loyalty cards.

One group required 10 stamps to get a free car wash.

The other group required 12 stamps to get a free car wash – but they were given two free stamps to start with.

Thus, each group actually had the same distance to the goal. But the response was significantly higher for the second group. Why? Because they started with a sense of investment. They had runway behind them, which made the distance to close seem shorter.

The two free stamps also gave them a sense that they would be “wasting” or “losing” something of value if they didn’t go ahead and complete the card.

When we look at an area for improvement, do we focus on how bad it is, or do we frame our next steps to honor the work they have already done and work to build on it? We are going to be doing the same work either way, this is a matter of presentation.

At the same time, do we try for the “big leap” and the 80% reduction as the goal, or do we set a series or more modest objectives that anchor a sense of success and moving forward?

Do you structure a big, complex “lean implementation plan” or do you take on one value stream loop at a time?

6. Grow Your People

Humans are incredibly social. We want to feel we are part of a group. We want a group identity that we can share.

Can you cultivate that sense of group identity in a way that aligns people in the direction of the changed behavior? What sense of identity already exists?

At the same time, you can strengthen people’s resolve in the face of obstacles by predicting them.

“When we implement flow, we are going to see a lot of problems come to the surface.” By warning people in advance about what to expect, you can shift the response from being discouraged to accepting the challenge of solving those problems one by one – because those problems tell us “This is working” rather than “it isn’t working.”

If you can challenge people to embrace what Heath and Heath call “the growth mindset” – we are going to build out competency by practice, which means failing and learning sometimes – that helps turn a surprise or disappointing result into a challenge to learn and grow.

Shape the Path

This is, in my opinion, an area where we make the biggest mistakes. A lot of efforts to implement start off with a “lean overview” of some kind – even to the top leaders – and then leaves it up to them to decide how to go about implementing all of this.

But they are still operating in the same environment they always have, and no matter how compelling the vision, there are obstacles in the way. The path is not clear.

The last three actions cover how to structure the process, the environment, even the organization in ways that clear the path you want people to follow.

7. Tweak the Environment

As I was reading these examples, I was getting really excited because it was all familiar. But Switch was adding even more weight behind the things that we do under the name of “kaizen.”

Yes, we are stabilizing and improving the process, but we are also clearing the path toward the behavior we want.

Consider these two examples from the workbook:

Do a “motion study.”

If you’re trying to make a behavior easier, study it. Watch one person go through the process of making a purchase, filing a complaint, recycling an object, etc. Note where there are bottlenecks and where they get stuck. Then try to rearrange the environment to remove those obstacles. Provide signposts that show people which way to turn (or celebrate the progress they’ve made already). Eliminate steps. Shape the path.

If this doesn’t sound familiar to you as a kaizen practitioner, you need to dig out the basics. This is not only exactly what we should be doing every day, it is exactly what we should be teaching others to do as well.

TPS / “Lean” is a management system that strives to do this every day. The cool thing, in my mind, is that Switch is as much describing what should be our routine as it is describing how to change the routine.

Or try this example:

Can you run the McDonalds playbook?

Think of the way McDonalds designs its environment so that its employees can deliver food with incredible consistency, despite a lack of work experience (or an excess of motivation). They pay obsessive attention to every step of the process. The ketchup dispenser, for instance, isn’t like the one in your fridge. It has a plunger on top that, when pressed, delivers precisely the right amount of ketchup for one burger. That way, if you have to deliver 10 burgers in a minute, you don’t have to think at all. You just press the plunger 10 times. Have you looked at your own operations through that lens? Have you made every step as easy as possible on your employees?

Here is where the nay-sayers tell us “But that work environment gives people no sense of creativity.” Damn right. I don’t want any creativity around the way the product is made. I want to know that my customers are going to get exactly what was specified.

The opportunity for creativity comes from challenging people to create a work environment that makes it easy to consistently deliver the product. And there are endless opportunities to do this. If / when quality is perfect, then work on productivity.

So as we work to “tweak the environment” the real question for a lean practitioner is how to structure things that make and hold space for this creative process of improvement to happen. What blocks the path? Have you carved out that space, or do you expect people to just find a way to do it?

And finally, Heath and Heath challenge us to look at the environment before we start blaming people. Good people working in a bad environment are often painted as flawed in some way. This is called “attribution error” – attributing bad results to the person rather than the process. I have yet to meet anyone (myself included) who was not guilty of this now and then.

The people we call the “anchor draggers” and “cement heads” are making the best decisions they can in good faith, based on the environment and information that surrounds them. We have an opportunity to shape that environment, and thus alter the inputs they deal with.

8. Build Habits

“Behavior” is built up from how people respond to the things around them that trigger those responses. When we talk about “habits” we are really talking about consistent responses or actions.

If we want to change those responses, it is helpful to link the new response to a specific trigger.

Again, looking at a TPS environment, I immediately think “andon.” There is a specific trigger (the light is ON or OFF) and a specific response.

Digging in deeper, and looking at the work Steven Spear did in his original research (which is summarized in Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System) we see an environment that is precisely structured to provide explicit triggers for explicit actions.

Further, there are processes to verify that what was expected is what happened, and any deviation triggers another specified response. So I see yet another area where the Toyota management structure is engineered to provide the kind of environment that Switch talks about.

If I am trying to alter behavior, I ask the same questions. Can I set a specific trigger that calls for a specific action that I can check?

Can I take something that people already do and structure the work (“tweak the environment”) so that routine action triggers the new behavior?

Can I structure the work to sequentially cue the next process step as each is accomplished?

9. Rally the Herd

And finally is reinforcing, again, the fact that humans are naturally biased toward wanting to be part of a common social structure.

What is the prevailing social pressure in the organization? Is it counter to what you are trying to do? Are the people who are adopting the new behavior isolated from one another? Are you trying to spread the early adopters too thin, in the hope that they will inoculate the rest of the organization? They will inoculate the organization – by creating powerful antibodies against the change. Small, isolated efforts dissipate your resources to the point where they are ineffective.

What can you do to create a majority from the minority? This is one benefit of the model line. It establishes a concentrated environment where everyone is focused on the same thing, and eliminates (or at least reduces) the social pressure against the new behavior. “We are in this together.”

Now, having a model line does not guarantee that the rest of the organization will spontaneously adopt the new way. Far from it. It takes deliberate action.

“Rally the herd” also means that the group that is doing what you want are celebrated as “doing it right.” But you have to do this in a way that doesn’t rub people the wrong way. Believe me, I’ve seen with my own eyes the pushback created when one division of a large company was constantly lauded as the “shining star” to the others.

Nevertheless, you want to highlight the bright spots, and then find specific, small things that have made a difference. GM couldn’t “just be more like Toyota” or “more like NUMMI.” That wasn’t enough. They wanted the results, but apparently never dig in to truly understand the few key things that went deeper than the mechanics.


Practitioners are often expected to “drive the change” into an otherwise passive-aggressive organizational culture. This can be a frustrating experience because lean practitioners are rarely given the tools to affect social conventions.

It is a sad fact that the vast majority of efforts to “implement lean” falter or fail within a few years. The message that I draw from this is “Look at what most people are doing, and do something different.” The mainstream message we have been getting doesn’t work very well, and just “trying harder” is no more effective here than anywhere else.

This book, with some careful study, discussion, and a little collusion, can form a great blueprint for how to actually structure your work to move the cultural change along.

The key is to remember that the “lean implementation plan” is NOT about how to implement takt, flow and pull. It is a plan to shift how people behave and respond to issues every day. The tools are important, but only because they create opportunities for people to learn and demonstrate the new way of daily management.

More From Dan Pink on Motivation

This sketchcast from Dan Pink covers the same ground as his TED talk that I posted a few weeks ago, but it is more succinct and direct so I wanted to share it.

When we look at what drives kaizen and continuous improvement, it is important to understand what motivates people to find a better way to do the work.

As we try to alter the dynamics of the way an organization functions (a.k.a. “change”) it is equally important to understand that tying people’s bonuses to their willingness to adopt “the new way” may get compliance, but it is unlikely to motivate true commitment.

What we call “performance management” in its various guises seems to be the worst possible way to get the most from people.

HR professionals – especially the ones who are pushing these networked web-based “performance management systems” – I have a question. What is the intended purpose of these systems? Is it developing people or driving compliance?

The Flow of Improvement

Mike Rother shared an overview presentation on the “Improvement Kata.”


The words on one graphic really jumped out at me:


Aside from his intended point that you never get good at anything but “business as usual” if “business as usual” is what you do most of the time, there are some other implied questions.

First of all, if there were only 15 days between improvement events, that would be overwhelmingly better than what I normally see. Typically a particular area can see months go by between scheduled improvement events.

Most organizations (how about yours?) seem to believe that once an improvement event (or a “belt project”) is concluded, that people should just “follow the new process” to hold the gains.

No wonder we see the advice to “fix it again!” We have to fix it again just to restore it to where it was after it erodes.

But there is a deeper question here.

What kind of “improvement processing” is this? Are we moving toward “one by one flow of improvements” or are we running improvements in batches?

This is batch improvement. We are doing a changeover, running the improvement process, then doing another changeover, and running business as usual.

Unless business as usual includes a robust and reliable process for detecting small problems, responding immediately, clearing them, and solving them, nobody but the event facilitators are learning how to do improvements. People may be learning about improving, but unless they are doing it every day, they are not getting particularly good at it.

Want to see evidence of this? What happens between the events? Do things get better or worse? If “business as usual” includes improvement, things will get progressively better, and you can stop reading this because your organization gets it.

So here are a few questions for you.

Assuming you want to strive for true, daily, continuous improvement, what is the next step you plan to take in that direction?

How will your “business as usual” operate when you take that step?

How is it operating now? What is the gap?

What is stopping you from doing that now? If nothing, then do it now, and cycle back to the first question.

Which of those problems are you working on next?

When are you going to be able to check your results and learn what the next incremental target is?

Now – head down to your work area and ask yourself how you expect problems to be handled. Then watch and see what is actually happening when problems are encountered.

In other words, let’s manage improvements the same way we are asking everyone else to manage production.

Deciding vs. Discovering and Developing

In a recent blog post, Why C level executives don’t engage in ‘lean’…, Steven Spear makes a really interesting observation. He cites two main reasons.

1) “Lean” is regarded as a tool kit. There has already been a lot written here, and elsewhere, on this fallacy and how it continues to be propagated. Spear’s most interesting observation is his second point.

2) Business leaders are trained to make decisions. They are not trained to engage in discovery and development of the organization.

This really hit home for me. Synchronicity being what it is, last week in Prague this very topic was the subject of more than one conversation over a glass some glasses of Pilsner Urquell.

Spear sums it up here:

The thing is, business managers are not trained to learn/discover.  Rather they are trained to decide about transactions.  Consider the MBA curriculum core:

  • Finance–how to value transactions
  • Accounting–how to track transactions
  • Strategy–taught as a transactional discipline of entering or exiting markets based on relative strength and weakness.
  • OM courses–heavily pervaded by analytical tools (in support of decisions).

Largely absent: scientific method, experimentation, exploration, learning methods, teaching methods, etc.

Therefore, even for those who have seen TPS et al as management systems rooted in organizational learning and broad based, non stop, high velocity discovery are ill prepared to switch from decision mode to discovery.

Each of these two factors – regarding “lean” as a tool kit and being trained to make decision – would, alone, bias an executive toward “deciding to implement lean” and then delegating it to staff technical specialists. And when we say “management support” here in the USA, we often come from the same paradigm. While we feel that a decision to do it is nice, but not enough, we often have a tough time putting our finger on exactly what we want when we say “we need more management engagement.”

To make it worse, even if we have management engagement, they still don’t have the skill sets to actually engage the way they need to.

So we end up implementing the tools, and wondering why the leadership doesn’t grab the ball and run with it. The reason? Because they decided to give you (the technical practitioner) the ball.

What to do?

There is a great trend out there right now. All of this is starting to come together.

Taking the pieces that are out there and putting them together we have identified a problem, we have likely arrived at a couple of good causes, and we have a proposed countermeasure on the table.

If you have been reading along over the last few weeks, you know I have been reading (and like, a lot) Mike Rother’s book Toyota Kata. In his last chapters, Rother puts forth an approach that just might work for teaching leaders the skills that Spear points out they simply do not have. I found it affirming because I was starting to advocate, and follow, a similar approach. Toyota Kata will help a lot because it gives me not only a little more structure, but also some credible backing that I might not be nuts for thinking this.

Watch for a full review of Toyota Kata in the next week or so, but in the meantime, know that though I have some minor quibbles, I am going to advocate buying it, reading it, and doing what it says.


Michael Ballé made me aware of a new site, http://theleanedge.org, that he has started.

Its tagline is “a site for lean dialogue with the authors.”

He has assembled a panel of some of the most prominent names in the field including:

  • Michael Ballé
  • Art Smalley
  • Jeff Liker
  • Mike Rother
  • Robert Austin

where they are discussing issues and answering questions.

It is just getting started, but I think it is going to be a great resource for the community. You can’t go wrong reading what these people have to say.

An Exchange with Michael Ballé

Click image for Amazon.com listing

Background –
In my original comments on The Lean Manager, I compared The Lean Manager‘s story structure to that of Eli Goldratt’s classic The Goal.

This started a rather deep email exchange with Michael Ballé that goes far deeper into the book and the thoughts behind it than any review I could ever write.

With Michael’s permission, here is that exchange, with minor editing mostly for readability and flow.

My words are in blue.

Michael Ballé is in black.

Text [in brackets] are my additions to help context.



Here’s the acid test:
Would you agree that Jenkinson play a different role from Jonah [in “The Goal”] ?
(hint: he is the lean manager :))



Michael –

Actually, no, I don’t think Jenkinson plays a dramatically different role than “Jonah.”

Perhaps if the story had been written from Jenkinson’s viewpoint, with insight into his thoughts and worries about Andy, rather than a third-person view of his actions and words, I would agree. Then it would be about Jenkinson AS a lean manager.

But what we have is Andy Ward’s experience of Jenkinson. Thus, I don’t get any particular insight into what Jenkinson is actually thinking about how to get his message across to Andy except in the moments when he shares his thinking in conversation with Andy.

For example, Jenkinson (and Amy and Bob) are driving the concept of the problem solving culture from the very beginning. But Andy isn’t “getting it” until late in the story.

What was Jenkinson’s internal response to Andy’s misguided approach? What mental PDCA did Jenkinson apply when he saw the right results being gained at the expense of the social structure in the plant?

Thus, this comes across as a story about Andy Ward learning through his interactions with Jenkinson (and Amy and Bob Wood), and his experiences in trying to apply what they were telling him, rather than a story about Jenkinson’s approach to leading and teaching.

So the story is (to me) much more about Andy *becoming* the lean manager than Jenkinson “being one.”

The real difference between Andy Ward’s experience and that of Alex Rogo (his counterpart from The Goal) is that Andy’s boss is participating directly in Andy’s success vs. just issuing an ultimatum. Thus, Jenkinson embraces the role of the teacher as well as the boss.

Yes – that is exactly the message – that “leading” in the TPS is teaching. But I think [The Lean Manager] is much more about Andy learning it than Jenkinson teaching it.

The characters of Amy and Bob Woods seem to be there to add credibility since a CEO really doesn’t have this amount of time to spend with a single plant manager in a large global company. But they are so well aligned with Jenkinson’s approach that they are surrogates for him.

Thus, Jenkinson is the “teacher” in a story about Andy’s insights and development as a leader.

THANKS for asking the question.
It really made me think.



Good debate.

One of the writing issues we’ve had was that Freddy and one of his CEO friends felt Jenkinson was underdeveloped whereas Tom [the editor] and I felt he was already far too omnipresent compared to Andy Ward. The basic challenge for the book was to share the experience of what it feels like to be a plant manager stuck between the hammer (CEO) and the anvil (real life in the plant).

Jenkinson was conceived to be this Batman-like scary character. He is a teacher, but not a very good one. Basically, his one redeeming teaching feature is his patience, but, hey, the guy is a CEO. I’ve worked with several, and then I’ve spent most of my time working with the plant managers so its the latter’s pain I wanted to share. Having said that, all your points are correct, and indeed, Freddy would agree with you.

More seriously, and I hope I can convince you …that [Jenkinson’s character is not a “Jonah”] because it’s a fundamental point I’m trying to get across. As you say, the fact that Jenkinson is Andy’s boss makes it TOTALLY different from the Jonah situation. Obviously I didn’t manage to get this across well enough, but having to learn from someone who holds the sword over your head is a vastly different issue than having found a great teacher (I’d agree with Woods/Jonah), no matter how cantankerous.

This learning-from-boss issue has to be my top of the list reason why lean is spreading so slowly. So I’d argue that beyond literary devices (how many lean novel plots can there be?) this is indeed a core point of the book.

Where I’ve obviously not written this well enough is that Jenkinson IS teaching, but in a boss kind of way, which is a very different position. In particular, I’ve been very mindful (maybe even heavy handed) of the fundamental asymmetry between roles, and the whole issue of how to deal with a boss’ comments.

By the way, Jenkinson is also doing what he can with the people he’s got (can’t replace them all, right?) For instance, you’ll notice that he gets very different responses from each of his plant managers. Jenkinson’s modus operandi is to show a lean problem to the plant manager, draw a line in the sand about where he wants him next, and push him/support him to get there; As people are different, each plant takes a very different path to lean its operations and requires a different mix or arm-twisting and lecturing.

The reason we never get any direct “look” into what Jenkinson really thinks (although we do many other characters) is that I wanted to reproduce this “boss” aura – no one ever actually knows what the boss thinks. We’ve discussed this quite a bit at the time of the writing, and your comments are spot on so I’m really interested in your opinion.

[a follow-on note]

Jenkinson was actually built on what I saw my dad do when he was CEO (I was helping him at the time with expliciting the “System” – I’m a sociologist). So Jenkinson does five [six, actually] things:

1) He forces. At several points in the book, he tells people: that’s the way it’s going to be. In the German plant, in the French plant with the impromptu kaizen, with the strike, etc. Basically, he forces his managers to commit and/or do something right away IN FRONT OF THEIR TROOPS. This is a specific technique – and not an easy one.

2) He gets them to go further in their thinking. At several points, Jenkinson works with Andy to push his questioning further (not always explicitly “why?”, but it does happen. Freddy, who used to be feared because of 1), was surprisingly in the HOURS he spent doing just that. It’s equally terrifying when you’re on the receiving end because, at first, subordinates are fishing for the answer they think the CEO wants to hear, and not thinking – which makes for a lot of frustration both ways.

3) He forces people to work together, particularly when they don’t want to. Actually, Amy does this in Andy’s plant at first with the production plan issue, but Phil forces the Neville/Andy link, and later the Engineering teamwork.

4) Phil encourages “problems first” at several occasions, which is trying to tell his guys that they come to him with problems rather than let them fester, and that if he learns of the problem from someone else first, that’s bad.

5) He lectures – although this is against his own expressed principles – as he states in the car at the beginning of the book. Phil is not so enamored with the sound of his own voice as the author, but we’re still all human, right?

One more thing Jenkinson does on several occasion:

6) “Stay on target, stay on target” – Andy keeps being distracted by all sorts of things, internal politics, problems in his plant, etc. Jenkinson realigns him at almost every conversation 🙂

The two insights we have in Phil’s thinking are:
– when do I pull the plug (close the plant, fire the plant manager/regional manager/sales VP, etc.)
– dealing with the politics of senior management

In writing the [business novel] genre You’re stuck between expliciting the thinking (the lecturettes, love the word), and sharing the experience through an action scene. Then there are the limits of the author’s writing talent – I had to really sweat it before trying work within the plant as opposed to out of it (The Gold Mine), because trying to describe a working plant environment is something of a writing challenge.



Michael –

A couple of questions –
Who is the “ideal reader” – the target audience – for “The Lean Manager?”

What are the explicit teaching points the story is intended to present to the reader? What does this ideal reader take away?

What should the target reader do differently after reading the story?

What aspect of the story gives him that insight?

Did you have those things in mind as you wrote it? Or did the emerge with the story development?

I see Andy as the central character of the story. It is he who undergoes the personal transformation, and the storyline revolves around his interaction with the other characters. As you intended, is a sympathetic character that many people the in the same position will identify with.

Thus the learning from the book is transmitted through Andy, based on his experiences.

I see Jenkinson as a (primary) supporting character, who in combination with the others, shapes Andy’s experience, and through that, shapes the reader’s experience. But in the end, he is mainly a teaching character.

Yes, he is also the boss and needs the results. He leads by example. He teaches “forcing teamwork” by doing it. He makes his intentions crystal clear, does not do hollow posturing, and can play the political resistance against itself. But to Andy, he is sensei.

A good student will be motivated by wanting to please the teacher. In this case, it is also an economic / career imperative, but in the end, it is about a motivated student.

The key points of what to teach certainly come out in the process, including the fact that Andy learns a few things the hard way in spite of being told (like the teamwork thing).

But overall, it seems to be about “How to be taught” by a true lean manager more than it is “how to teach like one.”

If the key point is to teach a senior executive HOW to be a “lean manager” then I guess I’d have written it from the teacher’s perspective rather than the student’s.

If I were a CEO or senior executive, I’d like to know what Jenkinson was thinking when Andy was getting bogged down in distractions. If the target audience for the story is a senior executive or CEO, then I would think the CEO character has to be the sympathetic character, with the frustrations and problems that these guys can relate to. Then they can see he isn’t “Batman” in a comic-book city, but he is dealing with the same problems they are.

John Shook made an attempt at that in “Managing to Learn” but the scenario was too limited to really create any dramatic “ah-ha” moments.

I think Dr. Bahri’s self-experience (Follow the Learner) was a unique perspective of learning-by-doing, but, again, the scenario is too limited for most people to see beyond a medical or dental practice.

So – after re-reading my own note above, and going back to your earlier note regarding your debate about Jenkinson’s character development vs. his “omnipresent” relationship with Andy
– I guess I’d say that:

With Andy as the point-of-view character, then Jenkinson’s development is appropriate.

But if Jenkinson is actually the title character, then I can see where Freddy and his CEO friend felt that he should be more developed. The difference is that, to get that development, the perspective of the story has to shift from Andy to Jenkinson as well. Then the “omnipresence” drops away as an issue because it is about Jenkinson teaching rather than Andy being taught.

One possible follow-on story could be this shift to the teacher’s perspective. Perhaps there is a new acquisition and Jenkinson assigns Andy to mentor the manager there through a turn-around as Andy’s next development assignment. Now Andy is the teacher, (with Amy’s help, or through the A3 process with Jenkinson), and we see the teacher’s perspective as he is trying to keep the student focused on the right things in spite of the noise and chaos that, perhaps, Jenkinson is throwing at it with his demands for performance.

Andy must simultaneously understand “the main problem” in the plant, and get his student to understand it without just telling him the answers. Maybe he sees the guy as a hopeless concrete head, and Jenkinson has to force him to be patient and stick with it.

What does a competent operations manager need to learn to be able to teach someone else? How does he learn it? What is the development process for that?

Then we would have a story of not only how to BE a lean manager, but how to teach one to teach another.




The books are about 1) teaching and 2) sharing an experience. It all flows from here – I never had a target audience in mind.

The Gold Mine was all about describing TPS from the point of view of a smart guy, who’s got the power to affect changes, but has got to learn all this stuff – that was Jenkinson then. The experience I tried to share then was “The Curse Of Knowledge”.

To Jenkinson most of TPS is new and counterintuitive and every time he’s picked something up, there’s more to it (and I still experience this fifteen years later), because you don’t know what you don’t know.

And for Bob Woods, the impossibility of expressing what you’ve figured out over years to someone, hence the annoyance and grumpiness (not “Jonah” 😉 ). Add Amy, who thinks she’s getting it because the tools make sense to her, but she doesn’t understand the wider business picture nor why older people have trouble thinking that way and you’ve got The Gold Mine. Now, the trick is in

1) sharing an experience and
2) conveying the concepts, so sometimes I get it right sometimes not.

Pat Lancaster of Lantech fame, made the same type of comment [about The Gold Mine] you did: “Why didn’t you write it from the plant manager’s perspective?” To convey the absolute panic of the moment you’re about to pull the plug on the MRP. The comment stuck, and eventually that became The Lean Manager.

The gimmick in [The Lean Manager] is that BOTH Jenkinson and Andy are “the lean manager” – Jenkinson is the closest I can make it to a lean boss outside Toyota (those I’ve known anyway) and Andy is learning that stuff – with the added twist of the asymmetry of relationship that defines authority relationships.

The Gold Mine was about TPS, and this one is about Toyota Way.

My overriding problem as a consultant on the shop floor when I talk to senior execs is: “Are we on the RIGHT problems?” The problem with consultants (me included) is that they seldom understand enough of the business to focus on the right things (not a problem to Toyota consultants with suppliers, because, well, auto is auto).

So I like the idea of Amy consulting with some company and getting them to fix the shop floor and yet having no results on the business because the real problem is in engineering – where she’s got everything to learn (enter Woods & Jenkinson). If I do that, definitely “teaching the stuff” becomes an issue (since this is my specific expertise, I’ve resisted going there so far not to pollute the message too much with my socio-techno stuff)

Will have to let this one simmer for a while.

In any case, the one main point of the entire book is that you can’t do lean to someone else, and you can’t have someone else to it for you – TPS is a line management method, and a problem solving attitude.

I strongly believe that this misunderstanding is at the root of the slow progress of lean – we keep preaching to the choir, but really it’s the hard nosed finance-driven managers we need to interest (more for the next book).

The only way I know how to fight on the field of ideas is by writing books and then getting them into people’s hands. So now that it’s out, I’d like to get it in the hands as as many people as I can to try and change the zeitgeist… Not my favourite activity!


I really wanted to share this exchange with you because it highlights a couple of the main problems that are encountered in any attempt to implement real change.

To quote again from Michael’s note:

“In any case, the one main point of the entire book is that you can’t do lean to someone else, and you can’t have someone else to it for you – TPS is a line management method, and a problem solving attitude.

I strongly believe that this misunderstanding is at the root of the slow progress of lean – we keep preaching to the choir, but really it’s the hard nosed finance-driven managers we need to interest.”

And, in the end, there it is.
Ironically, if you are even reading this, you already know it.

The Lean Manager is a success story, driven by the people who are actually responsible to deliver the results. While Michael and I may quibble about whether or not Phil Jenkinson is a “Jonah” character in the sense of The Goal is a discussion about literary structure rather than the core message here. What all of these books have in common is that it is the leaders who drive successful change.

The “slow progress of lean” comes in situations where the implementation is delegated to staff with the charter to “do it to someone else.” And, in my experience (having spent a painful amount of time as that staff), that situation is far more common out there.

I have more to go on this, but I am going to leave it for another day.

How The Sensei Teaches

In a previous post, I talked about Steven Spear’s observation about how a sensei saw a process and the problems. Jeffery Liker, Mike Hoseus and David Meier have done a good job capturing how a sensei teaches and summed it up in a diagram in the book Toyota Culture. (for those of you following at home, the diagram is figure 18.9 on page 541).

I want to dissect this model a bit and share some of the thoughts I had.

This is the whole diagram:

How a sensei teaches

This diagram strikes me in a couple of ways.

Let’s zoom in to the left hand side.


I’m calling the part I’ve highlighted in red the “sensei do-it-loop.” That is, the sensei says “Do this,” the students do it, then the sensei says “Now, do this.” Repeat.

While this first loop is the starting point, all too often, it is also the ending point.

And in this loop, process improvement actually happens, everybody applauds at the Friday report-out. The participants may even prepare a summary of key learning points. And perhaps, as follow up, they will apply the same tools in a similar situation. (As much as I hope for this outcome, though, it doesn’t happen as often as I would like.)

A lot of consulting engagements go on this way for many years. Some go decades. I am sure processes improve, and I am equally sure it is very lucrative for those consultants. But even if they are extraordinarily skilled at seeing improvement opportunities and pointing them out, these consultants are not sensei in the meaning of this diagram. That distinction is made clear in the next section.

This is where the learning happens.

Sensei Learning

I have highlighted the learning loop in red.

The sensei is primarily interested in developing people so that they can see the opportunities and improve the processes themselves. He wants to move them along the continuum from “Do” to “Think” so that they understand, not only this process, but learn how to think about processes in general. When the sensei asks the questions, he is forcing people to articulate their understanding to him. He is really saying “teach me.” In this way he pushes people to deepen their own understanding from “think it through” to “understand it well enough to explain to someone else.”

Think about Taiichi Ohno’s famous “chalk circle.” The “DO THIS” was “stand here and watch the process.” He had seen some problem, and wanted the (hapless) manager to learn to see it as well. Ohno didn’t point it out, he just directed their eyes. His “test” was “What do you see?,” essentially repeated until the student “got it.”

The second leap here is from “Think” to “Self Learning.” At this point, people have learned to ask the questions of themselves, and of each other.  So when he asks his questions, the sensei is not merely interested in the answers as a CHECK of learning, he is also teaching people the questions.

These questions are also a form of “reflection.” They are a CHECK of what was planned vs. what was done; and what was intended vs. what was accomplished. The ACT in this case is to think through the process of improvement itself, not simply what was improved.

Until people learn to do this, “Self Learning” does not occur, and the team is forever dependent on external resources (the sensei, consultants) to push themselves.

But the sensei is not through. Once people have a sense of self-learning, the next level is capability to teach others. “All leaders as teachers.”

Learning to Teaching

Someone, I don’t know who, once said that teaching is the best learning. I can certainly say that my own experiences back this up. My greatest ah-ha moments have come when I was trying to explain a concept, not when it was being explained to me.

I would contend, therefore, that a true sensei is not so much one who has mastered the subject, but rather one who has mastered the role of the eternal student. It is mastery in learning that sets apart the very best in a field.

Thus the sensei‘s work is not done until he has imparted this skill to the organization.

As the leaders challenge their people to thoroughly understand the process, the problems, to explore the solutions, so do the leaders challenge themselves to understand as well.

They test their people’s knowledge by asking questions. They test the process knowledge of their people by expecting their people to teach them, the leaders, about the process. Thus, by making people teach, they drive their people to learn in ways they never would have otherwise. The leader teaches by being the student. The student learns by teaching. And the depth of skill and knowledge in the entire organization grows quickly, and without bound.

So Here Is Your Question:

If your organization is typical of most who are treating “lean” as something to “implement” you have the following:

You have a cadre of technical specialists. Their job, primarily, is to seek out opportunities for kaizen, assemble the team of people, teach them the mechanics, then guide them through making process improvements that hit the targets. This is often done over the course of 5 days, but there are variations on this. The key point is that the staff specialists are delegated the job of evangalizing “lean” and teaching it to the people on the shop floor.

Again, if it is typical, there is some kind of reporting structure up to management. How many kaizens have you run? What results have you delivered? How many people have been trained? Managers show their commitment and support by participating in these events periodically, by attending the report-outs, and by paying attention to these reports and follow-up of action items.

Now take what you have just read, and ask yourselves – “Are we getting beyond the first loop, or are we forever just implementing what is in the books?”

How are you reinforcing the learning?

Who is responsible to learn by teaching?

I’ll share a secret with you about a recent post. When Paul and I took Earl through his own warehouse that Friday night, neither of us had been in there before. While I can’t speak for Paul, everything I knew about warehouse operations and crossdocks, I learned from Earl. I didn’t teach him anything that night. Paul and I did, however, push him to teach us, and in doing so, he learned a great deal.

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.

Back to Basics

The Lean Enterprise Institute is taking up a “Back to Basics” theme.

But what, exactly, are “the basics” of the Toyota Production System?

This is critically important. Permit me to cite an analogy.

Look at a house. What do you see? What would you say are “the basics?”

At first glance, all houses have walls, a roof. They have a door. They are divided into rooms for various activities and purposes. A “basic house” is going to have an entry, a living room, a kitchen, a couple of bedrooms, a bathroom. More complex houses will have more rooms, fancier architecture, higher grades of materials, be bigger, but the basics are all there.

OK, that is a basic house.

I make this point because when people talk about the basics of “lean manufacturing” they talk about the things you can see. If I open up Learning to See, and turn to the “Green Tab” the chapter’s title is “What Makes A Value Stream Lean.” That chapter is primarily (right after the talk about waste and overproduction) a list and description of “Characteristics of a Lean Value Stream.”

  1. Produce to your takt time.
  2. Develop continuous flow wherever possible.
  3. Use supermarkets to control production where continuous flow does not extend upstream.
  4. Try to send the customer schedule to only one production process.
  5. Distribute the production of different products over time at the pacemaker process (level the production mix).
  6. Create an “initial pull” by releasing and withdrawing small, consistent increments of work at the pacemaker process. (Level the production volume).
  7. Develop the ability to make “every part every day” (then every shirt, then every hour or pallet or pitch) in fabrication processes upstream of the pacemaker process.

Now I have to say right now that I have always loved this chapter. I cannot count the number of people I have referred to “The Green Tab” as a fundamental primer. It includes all of the basics, just like our house.

In their latest book, Kaizen Express, the LEI has brought out some more detail on these same points, and added a few “rooms” to the house. One critical aspect they add is various topics that add up to quality. (It’s kind of like leaving out the kitchen or the bathroom if you don’t mention that.) They talk about zone control, line stop, and countermeasures to quality problems. (I will do a full review on this book soon.)

Then on page 99 starts four pages on Employee Involvement where they talk about practical kaizen training (PKT), and suggestion programs.

Let’s go back to our house. The things we said were “the basics” were the things you see when you look at it from the street, and go inside and walk around in it. But in an industrialized country, the modern single family residence is a miracle of accumulated knowledge and technology. The basics are the things that keep it from sinking into the ground, from catching on fire, from leaking and rotting. They are the things you can’t see, but unless you understand them, your house may look like the one next door, but it won’t perform like the one next door.

I have been in dozens of factories that had takt time, some semblance of continuous flow, pull systems, supermarkets, all of that stuff. They had run hundreds, maybe thousands, of kaizen events, and had suggestion programs. All of these things were visible just by walking around.

Yet most of them were stuck. They had reached a point when all of their energy was being expended to re-implement the things that had slid back. Three steps forward, three steps back.

They had read Ohno’s book, they knew the history of the Toyota Production System. They understood all of the engineering aspects of the system, and could install very good working examples of all of it.

But something wasn’t there, and that something is the foundation that keeps the house from sinking into the ground. It is the real basics.

Kaizen Express hints at it on pages 99 – 102, it is true employee involvement. And here is a real basic: Employee involvement is created by leader involvement. Not just top leaders, all leaders, at all levels.

To be honest, a lot of technical specialists don’t like that very much for a couple of reasons. First, engaging the leaders, at all levels, is really hard. It is a lot easier to get things done by going straight to the gemba and doing it ourselves – we show people how to do it, we “engage” them in the initial implementation, and everything is wonderful for the Friday report-out.

But I contend that the foundation of the Toyota Production System is the leadership system. It is the system of leadership that holds up all of the walls that we call takt, flow and pull. Those things, in turn, enable the leadership system to function better. The “characteristics of a lean value stream” evolved in response to the leadership system, in order to strengthen it. It is a symbiosis, an ecosystem.

“But it didn’t start out as a leadership system.” No, it did not. The history of how the Toyota Production System evolved is well documented, and the leadership system was less designed than it evolved. But let’s go back to our house analogy.

Primitive houses only have the “basics” I described above. They don’t have sophisticated foundations, some are just built on skids (if that). But because they lack the basics, most of those primitive houses don’t last.

And there is the paradox. When we say “back to the basics” we cannot only refer to the chronological history of how the system developed. We have to take the most successful, most robust example in front of us today, and we have to look at what fundamental thing holds this thing up and lets it grow more robust every day.

So let’s take a look at what Toyota teaches when they teach someone the basics.

The article Learning to Lead at Toyota was written back in 2004, but I still feels it offers a lot of un-captured insight into the contrast between what Toyota thinks are “the basics” and what most others do. I want to encourage everyone to get a copy, and not just read it, but to parse it, study it, and use it as an “ideal condition” or a benchmark. Compare your “lean manufacturing” and your leadership systems to what is described in here. Ask yourself the question:

Do we really understand the basics?

Note: There are now links to my study guides for Learning to Lead at Toyota on the Resources page.