Lean’s Unlearned Success Secret

The following is a rewrite of an article I wrote for Product Design and Development, www.pddnet.com, titled "The Unlearned Lesson of Lean" and which generated a great deal of interest.  This version is a bit more concise.

Executive Summary:
Lean is a powerful and popular business and process improvement movement.  Contrary to popular practice, the true power of Lean doesn’t reside in training, metrics, or improvement events.  It is found in a deep-rooted cultural change after which everyone in the organization habitually, and perpetually, identifies opportunities and skillfully executes improvements.

The Rest of the Story:
James Womack, Daniel T. Jones, Allen C. Ward, Alan Altshuler, and others introduced the Lean methodology to the United States in the 1990’s.  It was introduced to manufacturing environments initially and has since expanded its usefulness to include industries such as healthcare, insurance, and banking.  Likewise, it is no longer a U.S. phenomenon, but is an international movement.

For the most part, it’s founders created Lean by compiling their lessons and observations from experiences with Toyota at a time when Toyota was demonstrating incomparable production efficiency and quality.  These innovators of Lean were able to articulate Toyota’s methods and behaviors into a teachable and transferrable methodology.   We should all have such foresight!

Those of us who have learned and practiced the methodology of Lean have generated great benefit for our employers and businesses.  There is one important fact, however, that we often overlook.  Toyota doesn’t have a “Lean program.”  In fact all of the various, ways, philosophies, and product development systems we study and try to emulate are probably different and improved upon by Toyota by the time we read the book.

Instead of studying how Toyota does one thing or another, we should instead ask ourselves how Toyota remains the business to study and chase with regard to production efficiency, quality, and product performance.  Why does Toyota come up with all the things we want to copy?

I believe that the answer is simple; simpler than methodology or philosophy.  I believe that the answer is that Toyota’s very culture insists that everyone in the company works every day to make processes better and work life better for himself or herself, for his or her team, and for Toyota.

Answer the following questions about your own continuous improvement program, whether it’s Lean, Six Sigma, or any other.
  • Do people make improvements because they are told to, or because they want to and are empowered to do so?
  • Do improvements happen only when improvement events are scheduled, or do they happen naturally, as part of daily activities?
  • Can anyone drive an improvement, or just certain people?
  • If assemblers in the second cell of product line whatever have an idea to improve the process or the product, does anyone know?  Is there an avenue to capture it?  Would it be executed?
  • When was the last time someone came to you with an improvement idea?  Was it executed?
  • How many people have to approve your improvement idea to allow it to happen?  Did you bother?

Can you see where this is going?  A great many businesses have implemented programs like Lean.  Unfortunately, Lean remains perpetually a program.  I have yet to observe a business in which process improvements are a natural order of business, part of the fundamental culture.

When I’m teaching new skills and behaviors, I often use the following metaphor.  If I go through the catalog and hang every tool available in your workshop, will it make you a better auto mechanic?  Of course it won’t.  You must know how and when to use the tools and why, and you must practice in order to become a better mechanic.

We must take this metaphor a little further, however, to become like Toyota.  To get to the performance level that inspired the Lean movement, you must become obsessed with improving your car.  You must be constantly tinkering with it, trying your tools in new ways, modifying your tools, modifying your automobile, and challenging your training and knowledge in an endless pursuit of better performance.

This endless, tinkering pursuit of performance on the part of every member of the business is what, I believe, has made Toyota the business to chase in so many ways for so many years.  Think about it.  The weekend street rod hobbyist will never keep up with the professional mechanic that tinkers with his race car every night and races on the weekends.

To get the most out of our continuous improvement programs, be it Lean, Six Sigma, Total Quality, or any other, we must go further than training some new tools, and organized events.  We must turn the entire organization into a nest of improvement enthusiasts.

So, how do we do it?  It’s not easy.  Deep rooted cultural change never is, and it won’t occur quickly, but it can be, and has been done.  You will need to chose the tactics and methods that best fit your own organization and existing culture.  That being written, there are a few basic behaviors that you will need to plant and foster. 
  1. Your people must be empowered to make improvements.  No one will try if it is too much hassle or takes too many levels of approval.  Make it the responsibility of every person to improve the processes they follow every day.  Give them the authority to experiment and change processes.  Let approval come from within and from upstream and downstream process owners.
  2. Your people must know how to make improvements.  You wouldn’t let an untrained neighbor tinker with your car.  If you do, you get what you deserve.  However, if you train your neighbor and dare him to improve your car’s performance, you might be delighted with the results.  If the first experiment doesn’t work out, let him try again.  Remember, practice is part of the skill set development.
  3. Your people must want to make improvements.  Ultimately, you want them to improve things because they will feel the benefit or because it’s the right thing to do.  To get the process started, you may need to set expectations and follow up with rewards or reprimand, but eventually you want the “parenting” to go away.  It is important to remove behavioral roadblocks that discourage tinkering.  No one is going to attempt to tune your car if they are afraid of being reprimanded for getting it wrong.  Establish a habit of complementing the effort and applauding successful improvements.  Put an end to behaviors that reprimand failed experiments and demonstrate doubt in people’s ability to succeed.
  4. Everyone should be teaching everyone else.  You want successful ideas and behaviors to spread quickly and you want everyone learning regardless of who is teaching.  Set the example by letting those below you on the org. chart share their lessons and tools with you.  You need people to want to share, just as you need them to want to make improvements.

Take a few minutes and compare your own organization’s behaviors with those listed above.  Make a list of the behaviors and attitudes that you want to change and make a plan for each one.

If you need inspiration for how to change behaviors for your organization, change contexts.  Imagine you are teaching someone how to play golf skillfully or to keep his or her home neat and clean.  The tactics for establishing those skills and behaviors will be the same, though the language might vary.  You will need to introduce tools, skills, patterns, expectations, habits, and knowing what success looks like.

Consider that you will need to establish a vision of the future state.  You will need a communication plan, a training plan, and most importantly, a plan for sustaining the behaviors you wish to introduce and a way of knowing when they are or aren’t manifesting.

The bottom line is this.  If you establish a culture in which everyone is seeking every day to improve your business.  If they are skilled and empowered to make improvements, you can create an organization that others will envy and desire to emulate.  It’s the truth so many organizations failed to see, or failed to accomplish. 

Identify the gaps in your organization's behaviors and make a plan to change your culture.  Become that business that all others envy.

Stay wise, friends.


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