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Is lean just another word for productivity?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Isn’t lean about productivity before all else?

Yes. Or no – it really depends on what you mean by “productivity.”

We live in Frederick Taylor’s world. We are – whether we think so or not – deeply influenced by his views. The problem Taylor set out to solve was both explicit and rather graphic. He felt that every worker was prone to “soldiering” or “loafing” – deliberately working slower than he could for a variety of reasons ranging from laziness to the certainty that increasing productivity would mean someone else losing their job.

Taylor’s principle of scientific management was to ask a scientist, an engineer, to observe how each worker performed, measure differences and put together the one best way, sum of all the most performing tasks to overall get the job done. This process would then be taught to all other workers and… voilà. In Taylor’s terms the human element was the problem. The way to solve the problem was either automation detailed standardization of human tasks.

Kiichiro Toyoda, Eiji Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno set out to solve a completely different problem. There is no reference in any of their writing to either laziness or “soldiering”. In Kiichiro Toyoda’s terms, they set out to realize "the ideal conditions for making things are created when machines, facilities, and people work together to add value without generating any waste." Progressively, Toyota engineers conceived methodologies and techniques for eliminating waste between operations, between both lines and processes. The outcome was the Just-in-Time method.

In Taylorist thinking, productivity loss comes from the people themselves: they don’t work as hard as they could and should be constrained by a system. This idea dominates work so completely that everyone assumes it’s perfectly normal to have a computer system dictate what every employee does, step by step.

Not a People Problem

In lean thinking productivity loss comes from the realization that any process, no matter how cleverly designed, will also generate waste. The best people to minimize that waste are the employees who run the process:

  • Every person must first master the process: This point is common with Taylor’s intuition. If you’re going to learn a way to do something might as well be the best known way. First learn the process standard.
  • Every person is expected to spot waste generated by the process: People are not the problem; they’re the hope for higher performance. By recognizing waste in the current process and tinkering with kaizen initiatives, the people who do the work will improve productivity (Taylor’s system actively discourages initiative – which Taylor saw as an open door to “soldiering”).
  • Cumulated kaizen efforts are a source of process innovation: By practicing kaizen every day and improving existing processes new ideas will emerge to design new processes in ways engineers had not foreseen.

Productivity is at the heart of lean, but it’s the productivity of seeking the most frugal process to do the work needed right now by involving everyone every day in seeing waste and seeking ways to eliminate it. It’s the productivity of better using people’s ideas, time and capital, NOT the productivity of making people work harder to produce more parts per person no matter what the demand is in order to fill inventories with overproduction.

This Isn't Fred's Productivity

The more insidious Taylorist assumption we all make quite naturally is that existing processes are “broken” and need to be replaced by “better” processes. In lean thinking, we don’t consider processes being “broken” – after all, they do work. We consider that any process, no matter how good, will unavoidably generate some waste – which we will identify and target. process rigor is the first step, but, contrary to Taylorist thinking (in its modern guise of operational excellence, six sigma, etc.), only the first step. The next step is kaizen. In that sense, lean thinking redefines jobs as work (WITH STANDARDS) + kaizen.

Few process are broken to the point of needing reform, yet all processes can benefit from kaizen to eliminate residual waste. Cumulated kaizen opens new doors for more innovative next generation processes. On the other hand, as we often see on the Gemba, replacing a “broken” process with a better one through investment without having solved the problems of the first process often results in carrying over the same problems with the new equipment.

So, yes, lean seeks overall productivity of how we use equipment (costly) and human time (precious) in order to do what customers wants, exactly at the quality they want, when they want it, in the exact quantity they want through better thinking together. In lean thinking, people’s minds are the solution, not the problem.

3 Comments | Post a Comment
Vitezslav Pilmaier December 9, 2014
Actually there is one more possible approach towards the question - very often people do speak about the productivity, but in the matter of fact we should start with the efficiency - increasing productitivy might not lead to increased efficiency, but just to increased waiting between the jobs / process / steps ...
Robert Drescher December 10, 2014
For me one of the things that the Toyodas and Ohno have taught us is that however smart all processes are in fact created by humans (we are not in fact perfect) so no process is perfect, but if everyone tries there is always a way by which that process can be improved. Understanding what waste is helps us see the opportunities to improve the process instead of looking at them as a problem.
Blair Armitage January 6, 2015

I really like this breif article. It does an excellent job of boiling lean down to a concrete and accessible concept.


I would, however, suggest adding to the Kaizen process the inputs received not only from the workers, but also the customers. Their perceptions and impressions are a dimension often overlooked.

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