25 years ago I had the great fortune to be in an organization that was one of the early US based suppliers to Toyota in Georgetown Kentucky. We received training and help from both our Japanese joint venture partner and Toyota. Their help was aimed at making us a more successful supplier using their time-tested methods commonly referred to as the Toyota Production System.
We were not trying to become “Lean” or undergo a “Lean Transformation”; we just wanted to be a better supplier and a more successful company. The help we received was primarily aimed at the shop floor. Some of it was very structured and exact in nature, like how to build a work cell based on one-piece flow and how to connect different process steps using kanban. Other help we received was less formal and structured like using material and information flow maps (later to be known as value stream maps) to better understand processes. Or how to present the results of our problem solving efforts and the improvements we managed to make in our Quality Circle teams in a PDCA storyboard format (later to be better know as A3).
As I reflect on our learning process I see some stark differences between how we improved and learned versus the approach I see most often taken today.
Today I see a great emphasis on what I will call highly technical, overly mechanical tool usage with little discipline on the actual building of work cells and connecting cells with good flow systems. (It seems that the hard shop floor manufacturing processes are getting less attention than the lean tools). I see the same thing in places like healthcare where there’s more emphasis on value stream mapping than actually improving the quality of patient care.
Over the last 20 years or so we’ve created new job descriptions like “lean facilitator” and “process improvement black belt.” These people use the highly refined tools like value stream maps complete with dedicated software in order to make sure they have a “proper” value stream map. We seem to believe (or hope) that creating highly trained specialists using complicated, sophisticated tools in the pursuit of becoming lean will actually make organizations better. This just seems so far away from what I experienced.
What was my experience? We drew value stream maps with pencil and paper in a few minutes and it was done by the people who did the work. Our purpose for doing it in this manner was to create a common understanding of how our processes worked. In addition, since many of our Japanese mentors didn’t speak English and none of us spoke Japanese, pictures, drawings, and schematics were the only way for us to communicate and reach common understanding. PDCA storyboards were done by the people who did the work (and again, done in pencil to help and illustrate our willingness to make changes and keep refining the problem solving process). Every storyboard was different because ever problem was different. The tools we used were designed to be used by the production workers to help them better understand their own work processes, to see waste, and to see opportunities for improvement.
As I reflect, I think that the approach that our Japanese partners used to teach us TPS/Lean increased the capability of everyone in the organization: front line workers, supervisors, and managers. We all became increasingly better at making improvements and solving problems using simple, common sense, everyday tools.
This became the way we did work, not some extra work to do.
As I remember it, our biggest challenge was to help management to catch up with the learning that was happening on our front lines. We (the managers) always seemed to be behind! Rather than spending enough time on the front lines, like so many managers today, we tended to come up with highly structured forms and formats… This was our way of trying to take a shortcut on learning. We wanted to make things easy for us to understand so we could look informed and intelligent. Often, if I’m really honest, we just weren’t willing to spend the time we needed to spend on the shop floor going to see, asking why, and showing respect for the people who really knew the most about the work because they were doing it all day.
I remember us trying to take shortcuts with lean departments and lean specialists, too. So, you guessed it, lean became the latest improvement program rather than a fundamentally different way for the organization to behave and learn. My experience was that the worker-based, pencil and paper, simple tools learning organizations in our company always outpaced the expert led, highly technical approaches in terms of true business performance and increased competitiveness. And more than this, our organizations that were rooted in learning by all employees created real sustainability: the kind that allows you to innovate (by solving problems) over time, even when the market or the management team changes.
We struggled then as so many lean practitioners struggle today to do this stuff well. But I think organizations would do better today if they remembered these basics:
- Give the front line workers simple, easy-to-use methods to better see and understand the processes in which they work (not computerized, standardized format, black-belt required, elegant tools).
- Give frontline workers the responsibility to improve their jobs and solve problems; don’t delegate this part of the job to experts or other staff.
- Have managers take the time to learn with workers by going to see where the work is really done, by asking why rather than asking for report-outs and updates, and by showing respect for their fellow workers by asking them to solve their own problems.
I think we might have better success if we stopped worrying about making a “Lean Transformation” and focused on getting better business results by solving problems at their source and ever improving our ability to deliver value to our customers in an effective and efficient manner.
What do you think?