Photo © Toyota Motor Corporation
There’s an interesting theory in a corner of quantum physics that states that anything that can possibly happen, no matter how whacky, actually does happen in some parallel universe.
This got me wondering: What if our world as we know it today happened for the most part, but “Lean” didn’t? The Seahawks still trounced the Broncos in the Super Bowl and Justin Beiber still got arrested, but maybe LEI never existed (gasp!), Toyota made haute couture, and Taiichi Ohno was a hairdresser. What then? Would we be stuck in a constant cycle of economic meltdown? Or would Lean have come to fruition through some other path? Maybe we would have something totally different and even better?
There are some facts about our current universe that do make me feel a little more secure about a Lean destiny. First of all, human brains are all hard-wired with the Scientific Method and innate problem solving skills. If we didn’t have those, we wouldn’t be here having this discussion and Socrates wouldn’t have taught us how to ask really good questions.
Second, while not typically part of our Lean community, many companies like Apple, Google, and Walmart have all succeeded through learning, problem solving, experimentation, and systems thinking. Their paths may have been different, but somehow each resulted in successful, value-creating enterprises.
And lastly, focusing on customers, recognizing a higher organizational purpose, and engaging the entire workforce--all of these things existed well before the machine changed the world. That’s not to diminish Toyota and Lean’s contributions in shaping all of that, but it is safe to say that Lean co-evolved with other progress in science and business.
Still, I worry Lean is sitting on a bubble. There are other natural forces that drive humans to always want something new and improve like the next flavor of leadership thinking. And there is no shortage of consultants, authors, and just plain bored managers willing to provide it (whether it’s truly value-added or not). This leaves us with a range of options for shaping the future of Lean. On one end of the spectrum, we could just let nature take its course and see what happens. Or, we could take a more active role in influencing what Lean is going to become. #1 has a much higher probability of ending very badly, so I vote for #2.
In the lean community, we talk about “gaps” – the difference between where we are now and where we either should be or want to be. Ironically, however, we rarely talk about Lean’s gaps. While I’ve never hear anyone claim that Lean is perfect, I've often heard so-called experts blame organizations that they just aren’t “doing it right” or “trying hard enough.” Blaming your customer is rarely a path to success.
So in an attempt to face this universe’s cold, cruel reality, here are a few of the gaps that I've been enlightened about by some of Lean’s customers:
- If I ask 5 “experts” what Lean is, why do I get 10 answers? Why is there so much variation? Why are there so many books explaining Toyota or even Lean in general?
- If Lean is so good, why is it so hard to implement? Why is the failure rate so high?
- Did Toyota look thin because they stood next to fat competitors in the auto industry? Apple makes more profit on < ¼ of the sales of Toyota. Doesn’t that make Apple about 4X more efficient in value creation?
- Jet fighters are inherently unstable and that allows them to be more agile. If we standardize too much or only incrementally improve, won’t that make us less agile to rapidly changing markets?
- Those Lean people are getting awfully snobby. Aren’t they supposed to be humble? And why is everyone speaking Japanese? How is that helping us learn faster and get more people on board?
- Why don’t you “Show me the money!”? What good is Lean if the improvements don’t readily fall to the bottom line? (see Michael Ballé’s recent Lean Post for more on this point).
You and your organizations are the true customers of Lean. What gaps do YOU think we need to solve together to make Lean more valuable and thus more likely to stick around?