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Is Lean Getting Lost in Translation?

by Lex Schroeder
November 26, 2013

Is Lean Getting Lost in Translation?

by Lex Schroeder
November 26, 2013 | Comments (7)

Lean is everywhere these days, I’m not sure what it means anymore.

“Every learning community I know is struggling with the same thing: breadth and depth. The more breadth you have, the more attention to depth you must have as well, otherwise the integrity of the work can get lost and things get shaky." 

A fellow attendee at a recent systems thinking conference I attended shared this idea with the larger group, and most everyone in the room quickly nodded. It resonated with me immediately, too. As our world becomes increasingly interdependent, as more information (and new information delivery systems) connect us more frequently (deeply? differently?) to each other, ideas travel more quickly. New thinking and learning have the potential to travel more quickly, too, but we know lean learning isn’t just about information, either in the form of principles or tools... Lean learning requires a depth of understanding developed through ongoing practice, ideally with a lean coach.

So we’ve got ourselves a bit of a conundrum, right? We want to spread Lean throughout the world, we know organizations and cultures are going to apply lean thinking and practice in new and different ways, and we want to maintain the integrity of Lean in the process.

I get excited to see Lean show up in new communities and watch as lean learning (and questions) spread across different fields. At LEI, indeed we say our mission is to make things better through lean thinking and practice. I think the world needs lean thinking because as hard as it is to practice, and as many misconceptions as there are out there about Lean, I’ve heard too many stories about it doing a tremendous amount of good to not want to help share it. For example, DonorsChoose.org and The Food Bank for New York City, and GE Appliances.

First, there was the Lean Production System, The Machine That Changed the World, and Jim Womack and Dan Jones’ book, Lean Thinking. Today, 25 years later, there’s Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup, the wildly popular Lean Startup movement and conference, The Lean Startup Machine, The Lean Startup Circle, Lean Six Sigma, Lean IT, the lean/agile community, the Lean UX (user design) community, Lean Impact, LEI’s own Lean Global Network, Lean4NGOs, the list goes on and on.

Some of these communities draw from “traditional” lean thinking and practice, with more of a focus on lean fundamentals (a lean management system, A3 thinking throughout the entire organization, and capability development), and in-depth, holistic knowledge of lean principles and tools. And some of these communities (pretty much anything connected to the Lean Startup movement) focus more on just a few key ideas, for example the rapid testing of products and services to make sure businesses are meeting a real customer need, minimizing uncertainty, and minimizing wasted energy, time, resources, money, etc.

And then there are all the places we’ve seen Lean move into new and different fields over the years, some more easily than others, like healthcare, government, and accounting. 

But what does it take to actually spread lean thinking into new and different communities and cultures? What is our purpose for doing so? What gets lost in the process? What is most important to maintain in the process?

If we’re serious about using Lean to solve business, organizational, and societal problems—how do we let it get picked up in new and different ways, which it inevitably will, and still maintain its integrity? 

As we struggle to learn together as a global lean community, what’s more important, lean “orthodoxy” (pure TPS) or lean integrity (true to the fundamentals, but adapted for specific purposes and situational)? What do you think?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  musings
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7 Comments | Post a Comment
Irene Johansen November 27, 2013
2 People AGREE with this comment

I welcome this look at the broad dispersion of Lean.  I have found many people to seem to think they know what Lean is, but are thinking it is about process improvement, and is a program to be implemented, picked from, and placed beside other efforts.

So far, I can't think of anywhere that the core principles I'm learning on my Lean journey don't apply:

First and foremost: A change in thinking. Lean/A3 thinking.  PDCA - or as I like to put it, PdCa - heavy emphasis on planning and checking. It implies evaluation, checking based on facts, evidence-based action. Service-based leadership.

Hoshin planning - finding the real values and goals of the company, and making sure all activites are aligned to them. What's realistic to accomplish? Where are the biggest pain points? What's most practical and effective? What's the short term plan? What's the long range plan?

Gemba (cross-functional communication) - go to the source for information. Observe, listen to what the people who do the work say about the work, and engage in respectful inquiry. Respectful engagement and empowerment of front line and mid line staff to initiate improvements in their areas. Developing a workforce prepared and willing to solve problems. 

Kaizen: incremental improvement, quick turnaround, but using A3 thinking and good data, on an ongoing basis (continous improvement in other systems).

Value streams - seeing a process, an effort, an idea, a project, from end to end, through all the people who touch it, as opposed to the silo approach to process - all dependent on the "who", rather than the goal.

Standard work - achieve the most with the least effort and the fewest mistakes. Allows time/resources/energy needed to deal with necessary/unavoidable variation.

Mistake proofing. Avoiding passing on errors. Minimize defects. Open approach to errors - no "hiding"; rather, encouraging everyone to identify errors so that they can be corrected, where the value is placed on the discovery and solution, rather than on the error itself.

CUSTOMER SERVICE. Creating what the customer wants. Value added and non-value added work, effort, materials, costs, ideas - What will make the customer happy?  How much non-value added effort can be saved?

Seven (or eight) wastes.  Identify and remove as much of it as possible.

5S - keep it clean, keep it organized, keep it easy to find, and easy to reorder/replace/keep up-to-date. 

How am I doing?  What am I missing? (Please tell me - I want to learn more.)

As long as the principles survive, and the cultural change in thinking survives, I think the rest is necessary/unavoidable variation due to venue and circumstance. I think if the cultural shift happens, and the principles survive, then Lean is alive and well, and kicking improvement butt. My opinion, for what it's worth.

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Irene Johansen November 27, 2013
Sorry - meant to say, "Value streams - seeing a process, an effort, an idea, a project, from end to end, through all the people who touch it, as opposed to the silo approach to process (that is dependent on the "who", rather than the goal). Value streams keep the eye on the prize.

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Irene Johansen November 27, 2013
3 People AGREE with this comment

And just one more...

Push vs Pull - I actually started using this one right away. I order supplies.  Now I only order what we need, plus a buffer.  Result? Not spending nearly as much money, not wasting supplies, and with the Kanban-visual management closets and cupboards, and the checklist? Saving money every month. This is not a shop floor, by the way - it's an administrative office for a network of 350 family doctors. It works!

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Lex Schroeder December 03, 2013
Thank you for such thoughtful reflections here Irene, and so glad to hear Lean is making a difference in your organization. Among many things, this going to the gemba principle and cross-functional communication piece I think is incredibly powerful for any organization, whatever the work is. Also, how often do organizations really take the time to identify and truly align around purpose? For me, these two aspects of Lean seem like good "entrypoints" for beginner Lean thinkers. In general, I'm very interested in what draws people to lean thinking in the first place. What brings people to lean thinking and practice and then what helps a team/organization gain traction? Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and experiences

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Charity Skelton December 20, 2013
Any suggestions of manufactures near Berlin, Germany; that are of high tech products?
I'm searching for an experienced leader of operations in high tech manufacturing. I have come in contact with more "supply chain"/logistics professionals lacking true operations


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Michael Ballé April 27, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

My hunch is that there are two parts to this issue.

First, people routinely confuse the tool for what it does, the finger for the moon it points at, or, in learning theory terms, the scaffolding for the learning.

The point of lean is specific performance improvement by engaging value-adding people in studying and improving their own work methods. Too often, which performance is targeted for improvement is left unstated, and "lean" then degenerates into applying this or that "best" practice because, well, because one does.

The second part of the problem is that most methods are born of specific conditions and, to my mind, apply within a certain domain. Lean thinking came out of Toyota's efforts in propsering in a saturated market, dominated by US players. And indeed, out of bankrupcy, Toyota became the global number one in half a century of steady growth.

Lean thinking's domain is any mature market where profitability out of market asymetries (radical innovation, imabalances of purchasing/buying power, cheap resources, captive audience, etc.) are not available. Lean thinking is a scale-up issue, more than a start-up one.

Transformation has no point in itself - tranformation makes sense in the terms of the business results one seeks. Lean is one transformation approach for those who seek business prosperity by improving products/services for customers by engaging nd involving employees in improving their own processes - that's very, very specific.

Tempting as it may to delute core lean principles in order to convince broader audiences, this, I believe, misses the point. We don't have to convince anybody. We have to make a clear, practical case so that the people seeking this sort of method can learn it without having to wade through the dross of half-truths, pop science, and busienss re-engineering rebranded as lean. Lean is different, and our role as writers is to show how it is different, not to sell it.

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Lex Schroeder April 27, 2015

Thank you for your very thoughtful comments, Michael, and for reading the piece. The idea about how people confuse the scaffolding for the learning is a very helpful reminder! I couldn't agree more than "transformation" has no point in itself and there's no point in diluting lean principles in order to find new audiences or convince anyone of anything.

The thing I wrestle with is this idea that we can control "lean thinking's domain." Can we really control how lean thinking gets picked up? Does any one community have ownership of lean thinking's domain? And if we can't control it (I don't think we can), what opportunities are there for sharing lean learning (without diluting lean principles) in new learning communities for those who are interested in learning more about Lean and getting it right? understanding that it's a whole system?

As for scale, what about the companies who aren't even thinking about growth anymore, but resilience without necessarily growth per se? There's a very cool wave of organizations that are simply trying to scale "across" now instead of "up" and looking to stay resilient/open to change in the face of uncertainty instead of always be growing or attempting to grow. I think those organizations should be able to apply lean thinking to solve their problems, too. Thoughts?

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