Home > The Lean Post> Lean Thinking On Purpose

Lean Thinking On Purpose

by Katrina Appell
December 2, 2014

Lean Thinking On Purpose

by Katrina Appell
December 2, 2014 | Comments (15)

If there’s one question lean practitioners love, it may be “Are we achieving our purpose?”

From time to time I’m asked if I would want to be a professor. I answer no and a frequent follow up response is: “Really, It sounds like it would be a perfect fit for you.”  

In a column from earlier this year, Nicholas Kristof accurately captures why, as much as I value my academic experience, I still say no:  

“The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant…

The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!”

This doesn’t align with what is important to me. I enjoy research, but I don’t want to spend my time or energy doing it if it isn’t of value to others. So, after earning my Ph.D. in Industrial and Operations Engineering from the University of Michigan, instead of going into academia, I have been finding other ways to spend my time and energy helping others. Some of this is through lean thinking and practice, which if we look at Toyota as a model, is grounded in an ideological commitment to contributing to society that leads to better business results:

"New employees who enter the company for the simple reason that they like cars will eventually be influenced by Toyota's founding principles and will become aware that automobiles are a means to achieving the real purpose of contributing to Japanese society. It is not difficult to imagine that a vast difference separates the business results of a group of people who come together merely because they like cars and a group of people with an ideological commitment to contributing to society."

-Satoshi Hino, Inside the Mind of Toyota

Kristof ends his post with a call for professors to join the conversations that matter: "I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!”

As a lean coach, this makes me think: How as lean learners, researchers, and practitioners are we contributing to society? There has been great knowledge created through research. How can we leverage it and accelerate our learning curves?  

One of the things that Toyota does is learn from others and enable others to learn from them. They studied Henry Ford’s Today and Tomorrow. They toured and learned from American factories and supermarkets (Liker 2004, The Toyota Way). They learn across the organization through yokoten. They open their doors and let others learn from them. Through the Toyota Production System Support Center, they reach out to help others. When learning they make sure to understand their own situation, the context they are learning from, and what needs to be adjusted for their situation when designing the countermeasure to their problem.

This is why we often hear or say “It depends” connected to lean change. But – and here is something research clearly tells us – what it depends on more precisely is:

  • What is the problem you are solving?
    • What is your current situation?
    • What do you want to achieve, what is your target situation?
    • How will the countermeasure affect the problem?
      • Do you understand the purpose of it?
      • Do you understand the context in which it is used?
      • Does it meet the purpose you need in your situation?
        • Do you need to adjust it to fit your situation?
        • Does it not fit and you need to learn another way?

As we wrestle with these questions in our organizations, it’s also worth asking ourselves:

  • Are we capturing and sharing what we are learning (successes and failures) in ways that allow this information to be understood in context so that others can learn from us?
  • Are we looking to others to understand what they have done in context so we can learn from them?
  • Are we looking at the research that has been done and learning from it?

As a researcher, I have to ask: Are we sharing what we are learning in a way that it is accessible so that we can be part of the conversations that matter?

And if we really broaden our scope, in what ways are we, as a lean community, contributing to society? In what ways should we be? What problems do we need to solve?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  leadership
Search Posts:
Lean Problem Solving
Mike Kobashi, Pascal Dennis, Sammy Obara, Tom Shuker & Tracey Richardson
Lean Product and Process Development, 2nd Edition
By Allen C. Ward and Durward K. Sobek II
Learning to See
By Mike Rother and John Shook
Was this post... Click all that apply
HELPFUL INTERESTING INSPIRING ACCURATE
8 people say YES
17 people say YES
11 people say YES
7 people say YES
Related Posts
15 Comments | Post a Comment
kevin kobett December 02, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Great article. Could not agree more with the education/practice gap.

One of my favorite management theories is McClelland Theory of Needs. McClelland believed telling stories of achievement will lead to what is now called lean.

It is all about continuous improvement. However, to continue learning you must know the learning that has already occurred. The best way to accomplish this is by telling stories. For example, a new employee reads one past story of achievement from his area of resposibility every day. She knows how procedures were established. She can visualize the old problem by looking at the improvement. She can build on what has already occurred. The option is everyone starts from scratch. Once you see a potential flaw in a story you can dig deeper by looking at other info like the A3 chart.

These stories are what academia needs to teach students. Real world examples that can be dissected to reveal how accurate the research really is.




Reply »

Katrina Appell December 02, 2014
Thank you! 

Reply »

Daniel Jones December 02, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment
A really excellent post that certainly resonates with my experience as both an academic and a misionary. Academics have a hard time understanding that lean does not derive from theory but from observing superior practices in Toyota, as I explained in What Lean Really Is at http://www.leanuk.org/article-pages/articles/2014/september/11/what-lean-really-is.aspx. The gemba is the only place you learn about these practices but going there provides lots of interesting hypotheses for them to think about and research.

Reply »

Katrina Appell December 02, 2014
Thank you! 

Reply »

elaine December 02, 2014
Very interesting article. I have worked in pure research, apliled research, industrial R&D, operations and also in CI. I completely agree that all research needs to answer a true need and also add to human knowledge.

So how do we apply that in Lean Sigma? For me too much focus is on meeting the need and not enough on the learning. My most successful projects have embedded the cycle of learning to create a "knowledge hub" that is a practical troubleshooting guide for our processes. This shared experience and knowledge in what to do, what to look for, how to diagnose is the pure gold of Lean for me. When we tap into this we show respect to our staff, help them grow, and reduce the variation on our responses to problems.

Each root cause analysis is a golden nugget for learning. This is for me when we start to be Lean. It helps answer all of the questions you pose.

Continually improving - Every day should be a school day!


Reply »

Mark Graban December 02, 2014
I visited six organizations in Japan last month, ranging from Toyota, two other companies, and three hospitals. On the topic of learning vs. results, a common theme at every organization was the priorities of Kaizen, quality circles, or other improvement: 1) Learning and development of people 2) Results. The clear focus and priority on devleoping people reminds me of Dr. Deming's idea (also #1 in the Toyota Way list of priinciples) that we need to take a long-term focus.  

Reply »

Katrina Appell December 02, 2014
Thank you!

For me everything is grounded in learning in support of a purpose. As long as we are learning we are on the right path.

How can and do we support the learning?


Reply »

Jeanne Kin December 02, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Thanks for the terrific post and reflection questions. Those of us who work in organizations with social missions, including academia and healthcare, have a special obligation to assess how we are creating value. Are the "social goods and services" we produce responsive to the real needs of our communities?

Reply »

Katrina Appell December 02, 2014
Thank you!

Reply »

Lonnie Wilson December 02, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment
Katrina,

Thanks for starting this thread.  I am amazed at the focus and attention lean has attained due to the efforts of largely a group of academics, specifically Womack, Jones and Liker .... and there are others.  Make no mistake "The Machine That Changed the World" along with the LEI have been revolutionary in bringing the TPS into the mainstream.  They have done more than the documentary "if Japan can do it, why cant we?" and Dr. Deming and Dr. Juran combined.  I guess that may be arguable but that is my belief.

On the other hand, the fact that the lean effort has been pushed by academia is also one of the reasons it is floundering today.  I guess that too is arguable, but I state it axiomatically.  One reason that lean is no where as successful as it could otherwise be is embedded in the posting by Mr. Jones, when he talks about "..observing what Toytoa does" and "...the gemba is the only place you learn about these practices...." 

Implicit in his statement is that we can learn by observing and for the most part, that is what academics do.  And I agree, but only to a point.  And that point is this.  You can gain the intellectual knowledge to understnad it but that is a far cry from changing it. If you want to learn a behavior based subject such as lean, there is no substitute for "doing it". I teach "we learn by doing".  Studying it is a far cry from executing it.  Thousands of academics can study managemment and business, far fewer can really apply the theory in practice and transform a business. 

Consulting is a mini-step toward "doing it".  When I speak of doing it, I mean join a business and be part of the transformation team and get the the huge rush of not only transforming a business but also providing a much healthier workplace for the entire staff.

So my advice to anyone wishing to contribute to the lean efforts....go do it.  Study is helpful, but you learn lean by doing it.  Observing others is helpful, but you learn lean by doing it.  When you study and observe: it is too easy to miss the entire human element and how important it is; it is too easy to miss all the correct as well as incorrect things done by top and middle management; it is all too easy to miss some of the most basic concepts like achieving stable flow....to name just a few.....

In addition, there is nothing like a real live, one-on-one, nose to nose discussion with the Union Steward about what you are doing; to bring a touch of realism to the distance that can be achieved if you only study and observe.

You experience those realities of life when you "do lean".

Lonnie Wilson




Reply »

Katrina Appell December 02, 2014
3 People AGREE with this reply
"the fact that the lean effort has been pushed by academia is also one of the reasons it is floundering today"

This is a very bold statement that can't be proven or disproven by any evidence.

I've done academic research that included learning by reading, observing, and doing. There was value in learning in all of these methods with the common variables being reflecting and thinking. Over the last 3+ years I have been doing far more learning by doing, but I haven't stopped learning from other means.

It doesn't need to be an either or of learning by observing or learning by doing. But how do we learn from each other and accelarate our learning curves?




Reply »

lonnie Wilson December 03, 2014
Hello Katrina,

Yes it is a bold statement, and although there is a decent amount of evidence I am not sure anyone could prove or disprove it.  A couple of comments

First, I do find it more than jusrt interesting that you chose to comment on that unproveable statement but did not comment on the previous unproveable statement that tended to more positive about the academic world.

Second, you seem to miss the whole point of lean, it is not about learning although learning is important...it is about accomplishing, it is about performing.  Learning is a great objective for academia but businesses (to name just one entity) need to perform to survive and among other things that means they need to financially perform.

Third, let me comment on some learning the LEI institute has done.  Read Womack's letters and his book, Gemba Walks and you will see that he too learned that its not all about the tools. Good management systems must precede, must support it and must drive the use of the proper tools.  I believe this was in a posting he made in 2008 or 9.  In his final chapter on Hopeful Hansei he cites his lack of appreciation for the need to first create stable flow.  These are learnings he had after 15 years of the LEI but quite frankly the real practitioners of lean could have told you that long ago.  So to his credit he is both learning and fessing up that he does not know it all.  However, on these two points, I could give you many more, are not new at all but are just now making it out of LEI.  Read Deming and Juran and they both preached these points over 50 years ago, yet we are just starting to learn absolutely critical, in fact preemptory, elements of a lean system.

Fourth, although most will read the above as a serious criticism of Womack and the LEI for example; that is not my intent at all.  For they are a business and they are going to push what sells and what they believe.  But no matter how firmly held and passionate a belief may be, that does not make it correct.  And what sells?? Normally the stuff that is easy to implement, not necessary the stuff that is important.

Fifth, if you want to find a bad guy in this, for my money it is the consumer.  For they are looking for answers and mostly they want quick and easy things to do.  So what sells??  Well LEI and others support that and give them the message that sells, not the message they need to hear.  And that is only a partial truth as there is really nothing wrong with what LEI sells, it is just incomplete.  Yet it is incomplete in a an incredibly critical manner.  More on that in a minute.  So what has been happening is that the consumer has accepted what these people are saying and really not questioning it.  they are accepting what they say as the truth (which most of what they peddle is) but worse, they are accepting it as the whole complement of skils and abilities that are needed to transform an organization......this is on the consumer for not questioning and not reflecting (as you point out).

Sixth, follow the history of the LEI message, it was tools, then it was management then they embarked a bit on leadership but still they are largely focused on the continuous improvement aspect of lean...they are largely missing the human side, the respect for people principal that Toyota refers to.

Wow....Katrina this is a long winded post and I would be mroe than glad to discuss thie offline with you...dialogue would be more time-efficient, if you'd like.  call me anytime at 915-203-4141.

thanks for your indulgence on this less than pithy posting.....

Lonnie



Reply »

Paul Littlebury December 02, 2014
Interesting as I first read “Are we achieving our purpose?” as “Are we achieving on purpose?” I know why, as I have been discussing this area in Agile/Lean areas.  After many years I think we can only really determine a path, and the purpose helps define that path, but ultimately may not even remain the original purpose.  After 40-odd contracts, the pattern is the same - well ... not always with "continuous improvement" in mind :)

Reply »

Jim Morgan December 06, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Excellent post Katrina!  Key insights and important questions.  And a challenge to be taken seriously if we are indeed going to create a better world through lean.  Thank you

Reply »

Irina Dolinskaya December 11, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
I especially like your question " Are we sharing what we are learning in a way that it is accessible so that we can be part of the conversations that matter?"
As an academic researcher working in the field of humanitarian logistics, I often face the dilemma of publishing my work for the people who will be evaluating my tenure case or humanitarian practitioners who might actually make better life saving decisions based on my work. For now, I am trying hard to do both....
I do think it is important to better involve academicians in real world problems, but for that to actually happen we need to change the metrics by which we evaluate academicians.  


Reply »

Search Posts:
Lean Problem Solving
Mike Kobashi, Pascal Dennis, Sammy Obara, Tom Shuker & Tracey Richardson
Lean Product and Process Development, 2nd Edition
By Allen C. Ward and Durward K. Sobek II
Learning to See
By Mike Rother and John Shook
"Too Busy to Walk the Gemba"
A Lean Leap of Faith