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I'm Josh Howell, Ask Me Anything

by Josh Howell
September 6, 2019

I'm Josh Howell, Ask Me Anything

by Josh Howell
September 6, 2019 | Comments (51)

Hello, I’m Josh Howell, president and executive team leader at the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute.

Since becoming LEI’s president a few months ago, I’ve made it a priority to talk with you and visit your workplaces. That contact and resulting dialogue led to two important questions that I alluded to in my email to the lean community yesterday. I would really appreciate your help answering them right now:

  • What’s the current state of the lean management movement? It seems to me that as the lean community spreads from generation to generation and industry to industry, the knowledge and practice of critical fundamentals – such as observing, analyzing, and improving the WORK – is being lost.
  • What are your top workplace struggles and the biggest problems facing your business? And what LEI books, web content, training, and coaching have you used? How helpful is each? What resources do you need?

Please post your answers and additional questions in the comment section. I’ll respond here or, if I can’t get to all your replies today, in a subsequent eletter. (You can sign up for my eletter and our weekly newsletter here.) Thanks for your help.

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51 Comments | Post a Comment
Per Ola Post September 06, 2019

Yes, there is a lack of Lean also today in the organizations I work with. This is remarkable since Lean was tested and approved many years ago. What is the reason? My theory is that most Lean systems is focusing on Change, more than Keep-and-Develop. 

My question is therefore: How can LEI (and the entire Lean community) change from Change to Remain? Which new tools and skills do we need?

My second question is: Do you agree on my conclusion?

Best Regards,
Per Ola Post, Post Lean Production, Sweden

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this reply

"I see a lot of 'kaizen upon chaos'"

"In project work, things are changing all the time, are you (lean people) proposing to pile on even more change?"

"I've made a career out of helping organizations solve types 1 and 2 problems primarily."

"Where there is no standard, there can be no improvement."

These are quotes, albeit paraphrased, from Womack, Benson, Smalley, and Ohno. Pretty good company for your "keep and develop", or in other words, "stabilize first" theory.

My teachers instilled in me a strong belief in standardized work, and that standardized work is more of an achievement than something to be implemented. (It's also something that I believe is misunderstood by a vast majority. Learn more here:https://www.lean.org/LeanPost/Posting.cfm?LeanPostId=1023">https://www.lean.org/LeanPost/Posting.cfm?LeanPostId=1023). It requires a well defined and stable system to exist within. How many well defined and stable systems have you encountered? I've only been at this for a little over a decade but still, I only need two hands to count the ones I've seen.

So to answer your question, IMHO it's not about "new tools and skills" but rather, about developing strong capability with good ol' standardized work and it's best friend, job instruction (Learn more here: https://www.lean.org/LeanPost/Posting.cfm?LeanPostId=222">https://www.lean.org/LeanPost/Posting.cfm?LeanPostId=222 And if you search around, you can find another Lean Post with a young guy with no gray hair who's teaching a colleague how to fold a t-shirt:-) 

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Bob Emiliani September 06, 2019
2 People AGREE with this comment

It seems to me that that the current state is one of confusion and disarray, with people no longer moored to the foundations of Lean thinking and practice. And, the raison d'etre for replacing classical management with Lean management is now more diffuse, if it exists at all.

A top workplace struggle is management indifference and resistance to Lean (https://lnkd.in/gR9hRsh" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">https://lnkd.in/gR9hRsh). Most LEI resources are helpful, particularly when study and practice are combined. 

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019

Thanks for the endorsement, Bob. And I 100% agree that practice is needed. Even better when guided by a coach who's "been there / done that" before and can help "force reflection" as David Verble says.

I do wonder about "management indifference and resistance" though. I'm resistant to a lot of things done in the name of lean too especially when, as you're acknowledging, those things aren't "moored to the foundations."

So, what to focus on exactly? Overcoming resistance or strengthening fundamental lean practice? I'm biased toward the latter. 

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Steven Thomson September 06, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this reply

There is no such thing as 'overcome resistence.' Humans by nature resist change because we cognitively can't question absolutely everything all the time. This is the fundamental connundrum of the idea of creating 'a Lean culture.' Culture is the very repository of the ideas, symbols and habits that we collectively take for granted. And Lean asks us to continually question those assumptions. Lean culture is an oxymoron, a fundamental contradiction of terms.

The way I would frame the challenge for organizations that where Lean has become bad habits is that they don't need -- and won't be receptive to -- someone preaching to them about how they misunderstand Lean. They already understand what Lean means to them in their immediate context. An outside expert has nothing to say to them. The meaning of the symbol is already fixed.

There is, however, hope: meta-Lean. That is, instead of applying Lean to fix processes, apply Lean to fix Lean. Drive deep conversations about how and why an organization improves at all. Draw on the lived experience of workers who have survived 'bad Lean' because they have the insights that can be used to return to the core principles and insights.

Lean doesn't work because it is based on brilliant insights -- it works because it is based in ancient, unchanging truths.

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Mark Graban September 06, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this reply

"Resisting change" is natural, normal human behavior. It's not unusual and nobody is bad for appearing to be "resistant." Labeling somebody as "resistant" is unhelpful blaming behavior.

Change (and choosing to accept change) is a process, not an event.

"Resisting" is an expected part of the process...

I will again point people to an excellent LEI webinar on this subject related to the psychology of change from a former Toyota leader:




Bob Emiliani September 06, 2019

Hi Josh - Respectfully, bias for the latter ("strengthening fundamental lean practice") does not address the elephant in the room. There has been 30 years of bias in that direction -- which must continue. But in addition, people need to understand the understand the sources of executive indifference and resistance to Lean. May I recommend that you study https://tinyurl.com/y6vz9kdx. It will be most enlightening, and guide you on what to focus on. I'll be happy to send you a copy.

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Mark Graban September 06, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Hi Josh -

"What’s the current state of the lean management movement?"

It's hard to generalize, right? In healthcare, there are some organizations that are doing some amazing Lean transformation work -- focusing on safety, culture, and management systems. They're also focused on getting better at observing and improving work, as you also asked about.

At the same time, too many hospitals in recent years have laid off their entire internal Lean groups (or P.I. team or whatever they called it) in the name of cost cutting, which is really unfortunate and short sighted.

Then, we have health systems that have abandoned Lean after new outside leadership came on board (and this even happened at ThedaCare, one of the former shining beacons of Lean healthcare).

"It seems to me that as the lean community spreads from generation to generation and industry to industry, the knowledge and practice of critical fundamentals – such as observing, analyzing, and improving the WORK – is being lost."

I agree. In too many organizations, "going to the gemba" means going and looking at bulletin boards instead of looking at the real work.

One other thought, and this might be controversial, is that the "Lean Six Sigma" movement has done great harm to the Lean movement. LSS quite often turns Lean into superficial 5S and Value Stream Mapping activities, ignoring the culture and management system.

Also, the LSS dogma of "Lean is for speed and you need Six Sigma for quality" is patently false and disprovable, yet that "truth" is passed along now from generation to generation of "belts."

Looking back, I wish LEI had gotten out in front of this trend to help steer Lean Six Sigma in a direction that's more accurately Lean. I think LEI has pretty much ignored the LSS craze and has just marched along doing it's Lean thing... and I think that hasn't turned out well.

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019

Hi Mark

It's nice hearing from you. 

It's ironic, during "gemba walks" what I actually want to do is stand still. To SEE what's really happening. Impossible to do while being in motion. And as good as any board can be, it'll never reflect much information about the WORK.

Your observation about LEI and LSS is an interesting one. Honestly, I don't know enough about the history here to know what LEI did / didn't do and have an opinion on what LEI should have done, etc. You've been at this for much longer than I have. Although I definitely have an opinion about a statement like "lean is for speed and not quality." To hell with that! But I digress...

Anyway, and regardless, how to engage with other (competing?) methodologies is a big challenge, one we're thinking about quite a lot. In other words, how can we, the Lean Community, "win" in the marketplace of ideas? Part of the answer must be through working together, yes?

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Mark Graban September 06, 2019

Thanks for responding, Josh.

My perception is that LEI leaders have been too polite to say, "The LSS dogma is hogwash... Lean absolutely helps improve quality too."

I wouldn't think of LSS as a "competing" methodology... I think it's more a matter of helping correct the record on Lean. 

At best, people get a superficial introduction to Lean in their LSS classes. The content is usually quite literally 90% Six Sigma, not 50/50. Hopefully that LSS intro inspires people to learn more about Lean (from LEI and other good sources). 

But there's a risk that people think "I know Lean" or "I was taught Lean" when they barely scratched the surface or have been taught some incorrect things.

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Ziad September 10, 2019

And Mark - Don't forget about the Belts too :) 


Joe Pesz September 06, 2019
2 People AGREE with this reply

Lean is an ambitious proposition, taken on by people dedicated to their belief in its effectiveness. If that belief can’t be passed to the next group before the inevitable changing of the guard, the best you can hope for is re-grouping and rebuilding. Mark’s example of Theda Care is the perfect example. LEI should be sending in a forensics team to get to root cause on that epic fallback. It is a cultural change, but it is also tools. As you try to push one, the other falls off. Promote the successes and do more to understand the failures. 

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019

Interesting, Joe, that you mention "belief." I wonder, how did the first generation's belief in lean develop? And what's missing from the experiences of the subsequent generations that results in their lack of belief?

I can only reference my own experience as a learner and coach here.

My introduction to lean thinking came while working as a manager in a coffee shop. The work was hard, physically for sure but also mentally (for an introvert expected to deliver good customer service consistently), and so was management, especially in terms of developing my team members. Lean thinking came along and helped in all those aspects. The work became easier. I became a more effective manager. My people started to learn and grow! 

And so, I became a believer. 

How about you? From where did your belief come from? 

Lory Moniz September 06, 2019

Hi Joe. You have me thinking about passing belief onto the next group.

In my mind if we all focus on the WORK being done that was influenced by the system in place to support it (lean thinking) than do we need to pass on beliefs? Shouldn't the proof in the system be in the work itself and the value its bringing to the customer?

deb September 06, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this reply

joe- interesting perspective!

for me, lean wasn't an ambitions proposition, but an invitation to experiment.

the result of that experiement (and subsequent ones) was all the "belief" I needed.

we didnt pass-on our belief, we passed on a better design of work to the next person to take on the job, and then taught THEM how to experiement to improve it further.

with that, succession (changing of the guard) became a matter of fresh eyes and hands on the work, and new countermeasures to new problems.

rather than hoping for the best, we can relentlessly teach PDCA and engage in scientific thinking. 

a different approach to the forensics team could be reflection at a local level on how effectively we teach and support one another through PDCA.

then it doesnt have to be culture OR tools, but AND, and through. 

Don Eitel September 06, 2019

Many times I express my focus on lean ideas for management and improvement. Many times people have responded "yeah...I know Six Sigma. I got my green belt years ago."


The other thing that has been co-opted or become the focus of those that think they know lean is "reducing waste."

I might say "let's try a lean approach here." And the response will be "I don't think focusing on waste will help us here."


The messaging out to the broader public is off. People ignore the hard parts (the people parts) and focus only on the tools part.

I also see these same scenarios playing out in the agile world as well.

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Masia Goodman September 06, 2019

Great points, Don.

Tracey Richardson also mentions this risk of over focus on "tools" in this article about A3s: https://www.lean.org/common/display/?o=1922">https://www.lean.org/common/display/?o=1922 




Joshua Howell September 06, 2019
2 People AGREE with this reply

People part vs. tool part...

I remember showing one of my teachers a photo I had taken of what I thought was a clever tool that had been developed and implemented by the staff of a grocery store deli. My teacher showed me a different picture and asked, "What's different?"

My quick response was, "I took a photo of a line balance chart and yours is of a heijunka box." 

"What else?"

Anyway, my photo included the tool only. The other photo was of two people putting the finishing touches on their tool. My photo was of the physical output only. The other photo was of some physical output AND two people learning about heijunka and its basic thinking. 

"Lean tools embody learning frameworks (for lean thinking)" IMO, the same can't be said for most tools. And so, the suggestion is that, with correct usage, lean tools are also the people part. 

How can we teach to that depth more effectively?

Taylor September 06, 2019

My biggest work struggles are how to prioritize  work coming from various sources and how to standardize knowledge work that has variability.

Feels like lean is more suited for building a thing that is tanglibe but not for knowledge workers who's work is done on a screen 80% of the time.

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019

I feel your pain. I mean, just yesterday my inbox was overwhelmed with 1,000 replies to my eletter. Most were "automatic reply" emails, but still. Oh the joys of high variability, and often high volume, knowledge work! 

I also relate to the challenge of translating concepts and tools that were created in the context of manufacturing to other contexts. And maybe no context is more different than manufacturing, and the creating / assembling of physical objects, than knowledge work in the office. That makes it quite hard!

That said, I've found great value in the principles and basic thinking of lean for knowledge work, including what's found within the concept / tool of standardized work. For example, standardized work contains three things: TAKT time, sequence of steps, and standardized work-in-process. In other words, voice of the customer (i.e. TAKT), actions to take in the order they should be taken, and the stuff required (i.e. SWIP) to do the job safely, with good quality, and efficiently. 

So, by peeling back the layers and digging into the basic thinking, I learned to see clear application to knowledge work. For every email I send, for example, I can 'check' the work by asking myself a question such as, "Have I considered the customer's (i.e. recipient's) perspective?" One practical way to write an email so that I can answer the question with a "Yes!" is to write it succinctly and in a structured way, making the 'call to action' clear, for example. 

Anyway, thank you for the comment. I agree that we have a BIG opportunity to better translate lean thinking for knowledge work. We'll do our best to tackle that challenge!

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Jim Becker September 06, 2019
3 People AGREE with this comment
Thanks for writing such a good and reflective article. While I have not been part of a Lean organization, I have seen first-hand how positive change has been forgotten, co-opted or summarily replaced by succeeding management.
Here are a few takes on why Lean fails over time:
  • Nerdy practitioners focus on details and miss the reasons why people resist change (culture change management)
  • Until recently, Lean was just a tool box that with few management structures around it
  • Lean was usually explained in technical terms so it was hard for newcomers to get an overall view
  • Lean was co-opted by Lean SixSigma, which emphasizes the technical number crunching over participation
  • The Lean name was co-opted in the press in describing the scorched earth management types like Alfred Dunlap 
  • While the book Lean Strategy is great at putting everything in a framework, it doesn't address sustainability of Lean in practice
Until recently I had little idea of what was needed to make the transformation sustainable. As the Council President in our congregation, we are undergoing a transformation. A book to read was Governance and Ministry by Dan Hotchkiss. He emphasizes the need for new board members to be trained. That made me realize that a key thing that Lean misses is the inclusion of the Board of Directors in the Lean processes. I believe that the only way to make Lean really sustainable in a company is to have the Board become part of the transformation. That way the members can see how Lean works and really buy into it. Otherwise, they will not take that into account when searching for a new CEO.
As an aside, if Toyota had done this board training and involvement in Lean, then perhaps they would not have been persuaded to have Toyota make it goal to become the world's largest car maker. There would have been pushback. 
We see this also in our congregation, that goals like growth are not best met in the long term by focusing on them, rather by focusing on those things that improve our mission.
I would love to see the Lean Strategy authors look at the inclusion of the Board of Directors in Lean Transformation as part of the sustainability of the Lean Transformation.
Thanks again for the reflective article.

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019

An interesting challenge indeed - engaging, or maybe influencing, board members and even c-suite executives, so they are effectively guiding and leading lean transformations.

Certainly their influence on organizational behaviors and outcomes cannot be understated. But also, the focus on engaging top organizational leaders reminds me of the saying, "be careful what you wish for." 

In any case, we recognize the importance of the challenge and have been reflecting on why it seems like so few executive leaders are lean thinkers. That said, the recent statement from top CEOs that all stakeholders must be considered, and not just shareholders, possibly indicates that lean thinking is having an influence on the "corporate mindset." Only time will tell.

As for the book, Lean Strategy, possibly one of the co-authors can weigh in on their view of the challenge of sustainability?

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Kris Hallan September 06, 2019
2 People AGREE with this comment

I have been pursuing lean transformation in a couple different companies for the last 14 years.  The biggest challenge I have seen is turnover in upper leadership.  Mark Graban alluded to this in what happened at Thedacare.  It feels to me like every foothold of true lean stability is completely dependent on one or two genuinely unique leaders in C-suite type rolls.  I have been lucky enough to run across a couple of these unique individuals in my career but I have also been unlucky enough to see them move on to other opportunities/retirement.  The affects are devastating and astonishingly quick to the organizations.


I think most people dramatically underestimate how truly radical a leader in corporate cultures looks when they are trully focused on servant leadership and employee engagement.  So my question is; How do you change the selection criteria for C-suite candidates from that of financier and metric maker to that of lean leader?

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Masia Goodman September 06, 2019

Great question, Kris. Just above, Jim Becker suggests getting the Board of Directors more involved and trained for lean transformation and sustainability. I wonder if any lean organizations out there have BoDs looking at "servent leadership and employee engagement" as qualities in their future leader? Would love to hear from others experience on this. 

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Steven Thomson September 06, 2019

I hear your pain -- and I am also not terribly optimistic.

The truth is that in every organization, there are changes in leadership. They are managed in a variety of ways. Perhaps in a few transitions the priority will be to find a leader who will 'deepen our focus on continuous improvement', but often the triggers of change at the executive level drive other priorities in selecting new leadership.

Here is the hope: I see Lean as a movement, a social phenomenon, not a salvation for this or that organization.

What happens when a place like ThedaCare (to pick on them as the favorite villian in this blog string) moves away from Lean? Several very good things.

1. Some of the best and brightest Lean thinkers move on to other organizations, take what they learned in their last job, become leaders and think more deeply.

2. Some of the deepest Lean thinkers stick it out. They are committed to the organization and they figure out ways to keep 'thinking Lean' and 'leading Lean' without calling it Lean. Isn't that a good thing?

It is quite understandable that we invest our identities in the organizations we work for and work with. But focusing too much at this level is akin to believing in the fallacy of continual growth. Ideas, organizations, communities all have an ecocycle. There are seasons and trying to stay in an eternal summer is bound to lead to exhaustion and disharmony.

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019

Hi Kris - I've experienced and observed similar outcomes resulting from executive leader changes. It can be disruptive for sure.

It's one reason why we were so keen to share the story of a CEO transition that happened at the Lynn Community Health Center. We learned a lot through their example. Check it out here: https://vimeo.com/264984591/8347241e31 ;

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Steven Thomson September 06, 2019

I am a consultant in one of those 'frontier industries' for Lean: local government. And not the Denvers of the world -- shout out to the great work of the Peak Academy -- but the small and medium sized jurisdictions.

What does that look like? 5-25K population, 6 to 10 departments, 40 to 200 employees. In these organizations, it is frequently the case that the only person who has a 100% management job is the chief executive. Every department head is also a service provider.

My colleagues and I have had a lot of success creating experiences and basic trainings that meet the needs of this type of organization to start to learn about Lean. But it is an unbearable challenge for nearly 99% to invest in the kind of training program needed to bring a deeper understanding of Lean to their staff.

We would love to hear more about Lean from the world of 'small and micro enterprises.' We are looking for peers and and colleagues to learn from and to force us to be more explicit about what we are learning.

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Hi Steven, thanks for making multiple comments.

I'm very interested in learning about the experiences you and your colleagues are creating. And the extent to which those can be created "on the job" vs. in a classroom. Would this help to overcome the budgetary limitations of small and micro enterprises?

I can't help but thinking back on my experience at Starbucks. I hope you'll forgive me while I walk down memory lane...

I mentioned earlier that my introduction to lean happened while I was managing a coffee shop. Starbucks was the company, and my store was something of a "model line" in the early days of learning about lean and how it applied to retail and foodservice. 

Anyway, I ended up joining a small lean team that aimed to spread lean thinking to tens of thousands of cafes, attempting to recreate the desirable outcomes that had been achieved in my shop, and a few others. I guess you could call these individual shops 'micro enterprises.' 

After attempting a training-first approach to be followed by application of the tools & concepts, and "failing" quite spectacularly, we ended up learning how to develop lean thinking and problem-solving capability through application. In other words, people learned problem-solving by solving problems on the job. Very little if any training was provided. People were simply guided through a problem-solving process whereby learning happened experientially

Anyway, it's only my experience and its results weren't perfect. But since that time, I've been a bit obsessed with the challenge you're alluding to. So maybe we can talk sometime...

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Steven Thomson September 06, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Thanks for this note, Josh. Yes, it is helpful -- and very much in line with what we are doing -- but there are important differences.

First the similarities: we used to do much more 'up front' training. Not so useful, not productive or -- most important -- inspiring. We really focus on the experiential learning side.

The parallels go a bit farther, too. It sounds like you had strong support from Starbucks corporate. Things like permission, support -- OK, mandate -- to experiment. But also access to seasoned Lean guides to help figure out how to create meaningful, effective Lean experiences. In my world, we have the support of a state-government office to provide services to local governments.

So here is question 1 that we struggle with: how intensive does the support need to be in order to get to launch? We feel a mandate to help as many clients as ask for our help. We also see to help one client reach more of a level of self-sustainability is more of a commitment on both sides.

Here is question 2: While I firmly believe in experiential learning, at some point that needs to be backed up with more grounding in the theory in order to make it stick. Experiential learning that only develops habits creates habits that drift. Experiential learning that creates opportunities for reflection and building of cognitive models becomes something that can be transmitted.

Maybe question 2 is something for LEI to chew on. What is the resource needed to help people take experience and make it more 'sticky'?

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019

Reposting an email I received with permission of the sender:

I’ve been working in Aerospace manufacturing for over 30 years and been teetering on “edges of Lean” for quite some time.

I do not profess to be a lean expert or have extensive knowledge in the field itself, but I do understand the concept of “continuous improvement” and it’s importance.

Over time I’ve made observations that has led to the following opinions that I wish to share now (again these are my opinions and are not meant to reflect on anyone negatively):

  • Lean material (at times) is to complicated; making it hard to grasp that necessary “mass appeal”; leading to “pockets of success”, but only for short periods of time.
  • Things like “value stream mapping” (present & future state) becomes someone’s job and end-up as that dust collector you alluded too.
  • Often “problem solving” becomes the task of an department and gets regimented into daily disciplines that show some benefits but little understanding.
  • The team approach (top down or bottom up) is a necessity not an afterthought.
  • Words that are backed with commitment and integrity are losing value to sarcasm and at times insults.
  • Common sense is becoming vey uncommon, and often machines are over-taking the thinking part of any given process (stagnating improvements)
  • In big corporations (like I work for) often throw people at problems, which usually causes more conflict and draws out the decision making part of the equation.
  • It is hard to preach team work and unison when you have “union vs management/HR” or direct labour vs management/HR.
  • Kaizan’s are planned as an “event”; with improvements being mostly temporary, often reverting back to “old ways”.
  • Mistakes are too often punished, instead of learned from, making the individual fearful, causing even more mistakes.
  • Statements like: Safety above all else, 1st time quality, Flow, continuous improvement, standardization. Tack time, and many others; are often said, but have little in the way of expectations or purpose. 

I could go on and on but I think “my take” on this has been explained; I’m fearful of becoming redundant!

When it comes to commercial aviation build rates… I’m sure there are single car plants producing more cars in a week, than aerospace industry, as a whole, will produce in 25 years.

However we are talking “trillions of dollars”; this brings in the greed factor; sending all those good words like truth, focused with honesty, backed with commitment… right out the window!

Again these are my words and opinions and as such are meant to provoke thought with the hope of continuous improvement.

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Phil Ledgerwood September 06, 2019
Hi Josh,
We've not met, but I get the LEI emails, and I saw your "A Revelation at the Gemba" today.
I own a software development company in Overland Park, KS, and we use Lean for virtually everything we do, from having meetings to driving out software requirements to actual production and quality control.
We have a reputation in town for having established a successful Lean software development practice, and we regularly engage clients who want to learn how to do what we do for their own software development teams, and a few clients who aren't software related at all.
In kind of a humorous twist, one of our clients is a manufacturer, and they called us up because "those things you guys do to build software, we think they might work for manufacturing."
I think they're right!
Anyway, I give you all that context to say that what you said in that article is very much reflected in my own journey.  I came at Lean through the context of software development, and it was only when I started getting into the manufacturing roots that I really began to help my team supercharge our practices.  It revealed a deep theoretical understanding that I was lacking, and as I began to rebuild those foundations with the theories and mathematics pioneered in Lean Manufacturing, it started to transform us.
I started reading almost exclusively Lean Manufacturing authors.  We discarded some practices and embraced new ones.  We were suddenly able to explain to clients -how- things worked.  We had empirically proven that they worked, but we couldn't explain the theory or the math behind them.  Now, we had the power to customize these practices for the variables we found at client sites in a way that was difficult, before.
A few years ago, at Thanksgiving, my brother was talking about all the woes that his IT company was having, and I asked, "Have you ever heard of kanban?"  And my dad said, "I know what that is."  My dad is retired, but it turns out he was an internal Lean Manufacturing consultant for Phillips 66 for most of his career.  His Operations Research and Quality Control textbooks are on our bookshelf as we speak.
Anyway, I just wanted to encourage you to keep banging the drum of the importance of the theoretical fundamentals and not just copying practices.  And there's always more theory to learn - not for its own sake, but for the sake of more effective practice.

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019

Hi, What a fascinating, and inverted, story! I'd love to learn more, in a detailed way, about the practices learned from manufacturing that you then applied to software development. That frontier is one we're keenly interested in. 

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Jim Fackelman September 06, 2019
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Have you seen the recent Business Roundtable's Statement of Purpose of a Corporation?  Here's a link https://opportunity.businessroundtable.org/ourcommitment/

It's become very controversial, and the AME's recent weekly newsletter had some comments.  The statement never mentions the word "lean," but it seems to me that this statement comes very close to describing the "Respect People" tenet of lean management.

Go Irish!

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019

Go Irish indeed! Off to a 1-0 start! Undefeated!! (Please forgive us, everyone else.)

Yes, I've seen the statement, and discussed it with several people. It was the statement I referenced on an earlier comment. I recognize the same influence that you do, and whether or not lean thinking is acknowledged seems not so important. 

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Greg Lobsiger September 06, 2019

Great questions Josh!


Interesting how Lean will move thru an industry like an ocean wave.  This happened in the auto collision repair industry 8-10 years ago.  Our industries speakers tried to jump in and talk about Lean when 98% really didn't know what pure Lean thinking even was.  Now 10 years later, out of 35,000 auto collision repair shops across the USA, there are probably 5 shops (maybe) that are truly implementing TPS!

In 2013 my sensei was a pure Lean zealot, but like most experts they are spread very thin.  We were able to implement several tools, Value Stream Mappping, create a Pull System, use Heijunka and so on.  He was able to spend two weeks at our shop over a six month period with talking in between.   I really needed probably two years of teaching in order for myself to (maybe someday) become a student. 

As far as your second question, we have Standard Work, but to move from Push to Pull has been our struggle.  We are in a service industry with great variation as to job size.  I have read several of LEI books and just picked up Art Smalleys Four Types of Problems.  I did take the A3 course in Chicago back in 2015, but at my level that was pretty intense to grasp.  I also took Building a Lean Operating and Management System when it was in its testing stage (prototype).  That was a great experience.  I was able to implement some Kaizen events in my business since then and it renergized my ethusiasm for Lean.  It is the answer for my business even though we are currently having the best year ever.  I am now signed up to go on the Toyota educational tour Oct 2019 and very excited to take one of my staff members with me.

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Joshua Howell September 06, 2019

Hi Greg, it's wonderful to hear that you'll be joining us in Kentucky! I think you're in for a real treat, and will be exposed to some worldclass examples of pull systems. 

Given your industry, have you watched the documentary produced by Roberto Priolo for Planet Lean on a chain of car dealerships in South Africa? Here's a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKhwBFuX7ek">https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKhwBFuX7ek 

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Greg Lobsiger September 06, 2019

Can't wait for the tour!!

Thanks for the link on the documentary,  I will watch it for sure.  Also, thank you for your committment to spreading TPS.  It is the most powerful strategic competitive weapon available, along with being just the right thing for all of us to do.

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Bob Emiliani September 06, 2019
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Joe Pesz made an important comment: "LEI should be sending in a forensics team to get to root cause on that epic (ThedaCare) fallback... Promote the successes and do more to understand the failures." I've done a lot of work on Lean transformation process failure analysis. When I challenged LEI and LAI to do the same in an open letter in 2016 (https://tinyurl.com/y3h6527t), all I got was push-back. There is more to learn from failure than success. That fundamental reality of Lean -- learning from failure -- was sidelined, to detriment of Lean and its advancement.

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Mark Graban September 07, 2019

LEI (or Catalysis, based in Appleton) could or should try, but I doubt they would get very far. I reached out to the new CEO to ask about Lean and their future strategy... once got a bland response from public relations and, in a second attempt, was blown off altogether. 


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Bob Emiliani September 07, 2019
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Hi Mark - It's been clear for many years that the required conversation must always be about success, and it is taboo to talk about failure. This reveals intellectual dishoesty that undercuts the credibility of those who, with good intentions, promote Lean management.

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Bob Emiliani September 07, 2019
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For example, the super-famous Lean academic once said (paraphrasing): It's too bad Bob Emiliani wrote the second edition of Better Thinking, Better Results. His reporting of Wiremold's failure ruined a great story." In contrast, my thinking was that reporting the failure (return to classical management) was a useful learning experience that others would benefit from so that they could apply countermeasures to avoid that fate.

Mark Graban September 08, 2019
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I agree Bob -- we need to focus on (and learn from) "reality," not just "stories."

David Drickhamer September 07, 2019

Josh, What a great series of comments!  I have some more thoughts on this topic that I hope are useful.

Re: Why aren’t the “brilliant lean ideas” more visible in more workplaces?

Different organizations have different needs in terms of operational performance (whether it’s efficiency and/or responsiveness). Many have a perfectly understandable “practical mindset,” and plateau when they’ve done enough, when leaders are comfortable enough with incremental progress and average performance, or when they’ve reached their limits in terms of management interest and capabilities. Should this really be classified as failure?

Perhaps the current level of lean adoption across different industries is as visible and mature as it needs to be based on market factors and leadership strategy/priorities. Some organizations will always limit their focus and ambitions to making steady and permanent process changes that will immediately improve productivity, lower costs and boost margins. Especially those that compete on cost with thin margins. Only a comparatively low proportion of organizations – based on market and business maturity — will ever push further to compete based on above-average operational capabilities. Maybe that’s obvious, and a bit defeatist.

At this point, lean tools and principles aren’t a mystery to any managers involved in operations. There are enough examples in different functional areas in all kinds of industries to hold up to any naysayers. Adoption therefore isn’t so much about awareness as understanding and successful application. Acceptable results are a function of how well lean methodologies are introduced, applied and entrenched. Going back to your observation, this is largely about executing the fundamentals well.

Also, if it were easy and did not require any resources, everyone would be doing lean to the greatest possible extent everywhere. It’s not. Deeper adoption of lean principles requires significant resources in terms of management time, attention and commitment. Such investments proceed on an organization-by-organization basis depending on leadership understanding of the ultimate performance gains and other benefits – recognized and rewarded by customers – leading in the case of for-profits to significantly better long-term financial performance. That understanding can evaporate when leaders inevitably change.

Finally, I think more companies are feeling the need (for marketing, performance and generational talent reasons) to more fully leverage the innate motivations and capabilities of their people. Companies that eschew platitudes and where leadership’s strategy depends on deeper employee engagement. Lean principles are one way to embed that mindset in day-to-day management behavior, which LEI should continue to emphasize.

Summing up, only a certain (fairly small?) proportion of companies will ever try to compete based on operational advantage in general, and lean specifically. Even for those companies that only want to remain average performers, lean fundamentals will need to be understood, reinforced and executed well to stay where they are. And for those org leaders that truly believe their people are their most valuable assets; that attitude has to part of how their company actually operates every day.

Best of luck in the new role!

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Ken Eakin September 07, 2019


Thank you for your thoughtful post.  I'm glad to see you and LEI are thinking deeply about the big picture.

There are two primary workplace struggles I experience, working in financial services. 

One is that "white-collar" office workers cannot easily learn how the basic concepts of lean apply to their kind of work when nearly every single example given by the experts (in books, videos, workshops, blogs, etc.) is about manufacturing.  If lean is to reach a wider audience than manufacturing—and far more people in the USA work in offices than in factories nowadays-- we need to be able to teach these fundamentals to office workers with no reference to work activities that involve painting, stamping, deburring, welding and so on.  Sure, lean management principles are applicable everywhere, but office workers-- rightly or wrongly-- just cannot, and do not, relate. We have to speak their language.

Secondly, the complex and intangible nature of a lot of office work creates additional challenges in learning and practicing lean in office-based industries.  There are few, if any, lean coaches (“sensei” if you prefer) with deep TPS/lean knowledge and experience who also have deep industry-specific expertise in software production or financial analysis or marketing campaigns.  (Perhaps Menlo Innovations should start a consulting firm, like Shingijutsu?)

So what I would like to see from LEI is more relevant content created by people with both deep TPS/lean knowledge and hands-on experience in office-based industries.   What would really launch lean into the stratosphere is to have a true lean transformation, enterprise-wide, at a company like Google, Amazon, Apple, etc. While I admit it’s shallow (and plain wrong) to equate market capitalization with success, from a popular perspective people like “winners”.  Associate lean with a business “winner” in a non-manufacturing industry and LEI and lean will be in huge demand.


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Stephen Patterson September 09, 2019

What's the future of certifications for Lean, Lean Six Sigma, etc. The originators of Lean weren't certified, they went, they saw, they improved.


I pose the question because there's quite an industry built on the certification process itself (not to be confused with the actual training.) 



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Tom Lane September 10, 2019

As I read all this I am both sad and glad.  Glad that some very good people are still pushing this and sad that it sounds like the same problems I faced when I first tried to implement "lean".

     That was in 1983 when I was director of Org Effectiveness at Cummins.   One of our key customers, Kamatsu  was pushing us for better quality, so I was "lucky" enough to be put in charge of the company change.  Same issues as now.   I would summarize the biggest resistence from many years consulting to the auto industry, as the following.  Executives still want to manage in a top down, controlling, functional oriented, and judgemental.  Getting them to become supportive, integrating, and non judgemental was, and still is very hard.  They have to change personally and most did not get that.   Good luck to all of you still  pushing this very important work.  Tom

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Brion Hurley September 10, 2019

I've been asked many times, "how many or what % of companies 'use Lean' today?"

I can't answer that. I feel like that's data I haven't seen yet. All I can do is list off companies that have talked about it, that they might recognize.

If you think of all the organizations in the world, it seems like it is a tiny fraction that are actually practicing today (depending on how you define it). And that varies by the department they are within, as some parts of their organization will practice lean, and other departments have never heard of it.

If we could randomly sample employees from organziations across many sectors and within departments inside their org, and ask them survey questions about lean, would that be useful to us?

If we could measure the % of value added work in each organization, that would be ideal, but extremely difficult. 

My gut feel is that the lean movement has continued to grow over the past couple decades, but is that true? What data could I use?

I think it comes back to the mission of LEI, to "make things better, through lean thinking and practice." If we could measure this somehow, that might help us better determine the current state.

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Andrea Pinnola September 19, 2019

Dear Josh,

as in the last 5 years I gained more experience on Agile and software methods, being passionate about Lean and following the LEI since 15 years ago, comparing the two worlds one thing started to bother me.

In the software / agile space I see many communities that target first and foremost the professionals, with free access to contents of great conferences videos, slides, white paper, sometimes whole books and so 'preserving the transmission of the basics and fundamentals'. Also online courses are at a level that individuals can afford.

It is apparent that LEI is set as a ‘Business 2 Business’ provider of products on Lean training, summits, books and other artifacts; as such prices and discounts are based on volumes (number of books, number of summit participants).

May it be a good idea for LEI to review is policy moving towards ‘business to professionals’ and so revising is online pricing policy for videos, courses and contents and gaining a greater reach and sharing of knowledge and practice of critical fundamentals?

All the Best, Andrea

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DAVID MEIER November 13, 2019

I think this post and the comments point directly to the reasonS that "lean" fails. How many opinions were there? The main reason "lean" fails is because people are in general terrible at solving problems when the problems are complex. Everyone jumps to "potential" causes such as resistance or lack of structure or tools focus and on and on. All of which may be contributors. So let's learn to be better coaches and then we will succeed. Or let's stop focusing on tools (that movement started in the early 2000's and has not changed the outcome). People jump to conclusions and then chase something hoping to get to a desired result. Ready, fire, aim. It is human nature. 

Let's start at the beginning- What is the definition of "lean"? There is none. Do more with less. blah blah. So how do you achieve something that you can't define? "How lean are we?" There is no level that defines "lean-ness". If the ideal state is the goal then according to Zeno's paradox we never get there. (Go half way to perfection, and then go half way again and so on). I have never walked into a work place on the planet that was not full of Muda and problems and things that "needed" improvement! NO COMPANY is LEAN! A state of total Lean-ness does not exist! 

People believe that if they have certain "elements" of lean (kanban, production boards, 6'S, stand up meetings, etc.) that they are "lean." There is NO SUCH THING as BEING LEAN! It is like asking how far you have traveled on an infinite journey. What is the relevance when there is no end? 

When you walk into a company how do you assess it? I was in China years ago with several lean "experts" and they walked around the plant and found Muda all over and made notes and then spent an hour telling management all of the places they had "problems" and what needed to be fixed. I have seen the same over and over. Anyone with lean 101 training can find Muda. Management did not need a list. What management needed was questions. What are your biggest problems? What are you trying to achieve? Where do you struggle?

I used to think that resistance to lean ideas was normal. I used to believe that it was necessary to push through and wear people down. It was not until I stopped telling people what THEIR problems were and HOW to fix them that the resistance stopped. Anyone can see things that are "not good enough" or can be improved. Well meaning people go into the work area and see Muda all over the place and then do work to reduce Muda then congratulate themselves.....but get little or NO benefit. They do not start with a problem to solve.

Example- company wants to do kaizen "event" (there is no such thing). Has to have a kaizen charter to get approval for event. Charter asks "What will you achieve?" Answer- we will implement standard work and one piece flow (answers to a problem??). How in the world do you have "answers" BEFORE you analyze the current state? I have seen the same behavior so many times. I asked "Why do you think you need single piece flow?" Answer- "It's lean isn't it?" Here is the sad part. The work area could not make enough parts to meet demand. Pushing single piece flow SLOWED down the line. It made the real problem WORSE. 

I am going to summarize with my definition of what it means to be "lean." First, they stop asking if they are lean! My definition- people throughout the organization have a conversation that is a variant of this-

Here is the problem we were trying to solve. We needed to solve it because....  When we analyzed the situation here is what we found (and they can show data, diagrams, etc.) Based on that we decided to do this (countermeasures) and as a result we now have this. From here we plan to do this...(next steps). If many people in an organization are doing that AND the results improve year over year then the organization will continue to improve. When you fix real problems and make it impossible to go back things tend to stick.

One last thing....if I hear one more person state that lean is "common sense" I may just lose it! If it were common it would be widespread. Lean is very much counterintuitive and goes against human nature. Why on earth would you creat a fragile system designed to highlight problems and provide no way to avoid them? Because that is what is required to overcome our natural human behavior (avoid problems and build in back up so the problem does not have to be dealt with). Getting better requires effort and the human brain is based on the conservation of energy. 

One thing is for sure....there are a lot of people professing, teaching, coaching, telling, forcing lean ideas and the result is dismal. It is complex but at the same time simple. If the majority "fail" (Toyota taught us the only failure was a failure to learn and improve) something is missing. What is "wrong" is too many people telling other people "how" to be lean. How can you become something that by definition does not exist?

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dan prock November 23, 2019

Hi Josh

This is an interesting discussion and what my book The Sensei Way at Work - will be about in 2020. I hope you haven't stopped reading these posts.

First it seems we don't all have a handle on the C/S of lean.


I would contend that the current state isn't failure, but in fact numerous "sweet spots" of lean success in many companies. These areas were likely always well-led and populated by employees who were somewhat adventurous or just professional in their jobs. Presto. Lean works in sweet spots. And they can last because employees like it better than mass production. This is where visitors get taken on plant tours!

Problem with the current state is that companies can't link up a few sweetspots into a lean VS and get big-bang Toyota-style productivity or the extra "free" capacity hit that adds more volume or new products for "free" and saves big $$ which are the tangible results that executives love.

We can't sustain big-scope lean VS because executives continue to support and promote managers who are authorized to use command and control to preserve the value of the 'asset' (as Bob E. has so well described in his book).

Most executives see a company as "property", and aim to improve the value of its assets like machines, receivables, customers, etc. and they see employees as intangible assets. So to them "how employees can work better with lean" is an an intangible on top of an intangile.

Will lean increase the value of the company as an asset? maybe - if managers can learn it and it lasts? Those are more intangibles. Lean advocates say lean has great potential to do so of course, and we suppress the fact that failures to sustain are the vast majority.

In an ideal world it would work well, but executives are realists.

And the biggest gap seems to be that almost no exec's are willing to t be immersed in a challenge  to solve an operational problem or do a work redesignwith a sensei. And as a result they don't get that when those "intangible" people collaborate with their process and product knowledge they can make manufacturing a competitive weapon. 

However, as HBS wrote years ago, companies can compete on low price, product leadership or customer intimacy. Lean would seem to support just the first. And some exec's don't need to make manufacturing into be a weapon because they already have one of the others.Yet because it's not PC for them to say that they don't "want" a lean factory - they say it, but they don't mean it.

How do we know? Because they continue to support the command and control management to protect the "asset" yet cause conflict and killl the trust and employee' motivation requied to sustain lean discipline.

So what's the secret sauce? - it's not retreaing standard work, etc. As the saying goes, When you realize you're in a hole, stop digging.

Until we understand the secret sauce, the pure elixer imported from Japan, and find a way to get executives and operations managers to drink it, the "classic" executive role of "property asset manager"will continue to be the rule, and lean coaches will striggle with an impossible task. 




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Ken Hunt January 17, 2020

Plain and simple,  an example of short sighted huge failure on the part of Boeing,  let's cut costs, fire the consultants, and expect great results for our shareholders. How'd that work?

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