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Am I doing lean right? How can I tell?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’m spending a lot of time at the Gemba, but how do I know if I’m doing lean right?

Have you got a sensei? That is a very interesting and self-reflexive question, and I’m impressed that you ask it in such a straightforward manner – but I’m not sure how to answer it. This is why senseis matter – just like with tai chi or any other art where you practice moves, the relationship with a master (and their relationship with their masters) is a powerful element of the mix in terms of both keeping to the straight and narrow and opening new perspectives for the two terrifying lean questions when you show what you’ve just achieved to your sensei:

  • Why?
  • What’s your next step?

It’s an excellent question, however. I was on the Gemba a few days ago and as we were trying to understand one point with the CEO in the software engineering department, the middle manager started debating “agile” versus “lean.” To be honest, we were more interested in understanding whether the software teams were working on immediate customer problems and how recent development affected the stability of the full product and were a bit taken aback.

But the point remains valid: how do we know that we’re taking the right approach? Particularly when engaging in a practice that turns intuition on its head and everyone and his dog will say you shouldn’t do this or that, there’s no point, what’s the use, it’s impossible -- and the rest of the run-of-the-mill reactions people have when you challenge work performance.

Three Criteria for Lean Done Right

Intent matters, more than we often take into account. Let’s face it: there is a mystery to lean.If we take a step back, we can establish three criteria:

  1. Is your intent to do lean the right way?
  2. Do you have visible performance improvement through people development?
  3. Do you know what you’re doing?

Intent matters, more than we often take into account. Let’s face it: there is a mystery to lean. First, from TPS to lean programs, we now have 60 years of lean tradition to draw on – much of it case by case. Secondly the “kaizen tools/lean principles” approach to learning by observing, doing and discussing doesn’t lend itself to simple recipes, and much of lean thinking is about keeping the spirit of discovery alive. Still, there are a few clear checkpoints to figure out how hard you’re trying:

  1. Have you gone to the Gemba today?
  2. Have you spotted a safety issue today, and defended problem solving to protect better employees?
  3. Have you spotted a customer satisfaction issue today, and have you defended your customer against the company’s own processes today?
  4. Have you spotted batch thinking today, and argued for greater flexibility and more variety for customers rather than less? Trying to get closer to working one product or service at a time?
  5. Have you spotted a case of rework and discussed the process step-by-step with the employee to understand where the problem was, how people intended to solve it, and what barriers they thought they faced?
  6. Have you encouraged a team to look at its own performance, study its own work method, and come up with a better way of doing things?
  7. Have you learned yourself from your Gemba visit one opportunity to further lean your organization (irrespective of whether we know how to do it right now)?

Not only are these questions difficult to face without compromise, but the second aspect of a true lean intent is that you commit not to solve these problems yourself, but to find a way to make the people in charge of the area understand the problem and come up with answers (which, obviously, doesn’t mean you can’t have your own opinion on the matter – just can’t share it).

Link Visible Performance to People

A critical difference between the lean approach and financial management is that lean managers don’t try to control every tactical fire – they learn to roll with the punches.To the second point: Is it working? The aim of any lean activity is double: have you improved performance and have you developed someone in doing so. Improved performance is the acid test that tells you what you did was right; measuring results distinguishes learning from experience – which could be random change. But, in lean, results by themselves don’t tell us much (better be lucky than good, right?) if someone has not grown. Visible performance should be linked to someone better understanding a work situation and clearly enunciating “before we did this, now we handle it like that.” Without an increased autonomy of how people deal with complex situations, so that, overall, they perform better, a single local improvement doesn’t tell us much.

A critical difference between the lean approach and financial management is that lean managers don’t try to control every tactical fire – they learn to roll with the punches. Instead, they will focus on fundamentals, always. Financial management can tell you in any situation how you could increase price, lower costs, and probably invest in something with a great on-paper ROI. As we know, the sum of these tactical decisions often amounts to policy disasters. Lean outcomes differ because each situation is dealt with in terms of performance in general (not just cost) and by focusing on the drivers of performance: how people define success, how they grasp the situation, and how they chose to do what they do and reflect upon it.

Therefore, the second criterion to knowing whether you're doing “good” lean is showing specific instances where visible results can be attributed to a person or a team having figured out something fundamental and precise about their own work in their own circumstances and delivered visible performance improvements. For instance, when a hospital reduces its average length of stay by 20% (which is a massive performance improvement for a hospital) setting up an exit unit and preparing in advance the next step for difficult patient cases, this visible performance improvement can be linked to better mastering the fundamentals of the patient flow. We can try as hard as we like to alleviate pressure on the emergency wards, but if there are no free beds to take patients in the other wards, bad conditions will remain in emergency.

Pulling exits carefully is the key to lightening the load on emergency. In this case, the visible Gemba result is explained by a more profound understanding of how a hospital flow works, so “good” lean.

Deepen Your Understanding

If we seek improvement by practicing lean, we should also better understand how lean does deliver improvement.The final criterion may sound a bit strange, but although, yes, one can argue that as long as there is improvement, there is no need to look any further. Personally, I feel that if we seek improvement by practicing lean, we should also better understand how lean does deliver improvement.

Lean, to my mind, is a full paradigm change. Individual tools are easy to master quickly, but the full system remains something of a mystery that requires daily practice for many years. I was recently in Toyota’s Taipei plant and asked them: how long does it take to develop a TPS sensei? The answer: 30 years. I don’t believe they’re being cute – there is a reason. The lean system has grown over 60 years in a variety of situations and mastering it is a life-long pursuit. As a result, I do believe that any activity (successful or not) should also deepen your understanding of lean itself.

It’s well known that I have a pet peeve against many consultants. Actually, I have nothing whatsoever against consulting – I really mind the fact that many consultants latch on to one tool and stay there. The story of the blind men and the elephant tells us that when we encounter a complex system we tend to be like blind men meeting an elephant: one says “the elephant is a snake,” the other “it’s a wall.” The third: “It’s a tree.” Fair enough. But the blind men can continue to grope around the elephant and move from the trunk (the snake) to the belly (the wall) to the leg (the tree) and progressively assemble a fuller picture. Self-reflexivity about lean is essential to understand the spirit of the system beyond the individual tools, and correspondingly use the tools more wisely.

Toyota Taipei’s sensei talked about “seeing the wisdom” on the shop floor: shop-floor operations designed to make it easy for operators to work without muri, mura, or muda. This wisdom comes from the constant questioning of “what, exactly, is good lean?” which is exactly the question you’re asking.

I realize this is a very personal answer and I don’t know whether it can help you, but thank you for asking this question as I had to think hard about it. I’m on the Gemba every second day as well, and it’s an excellent question to ask oneself if we don’t want to fall into mindless routines.

To sum up, I believe the answer has three aspects: First, how serious is our intent to practice lean? Second, do we see visible performance improvements that can be linked to someone having learned to do something better in their own job? Thirdly, do we constantly question how our Gemba experiences change our own understanding of lean thinking so that our results are deliberate and not accidental? Yes, better to be lucky than good, but can we expect to be lucky again and again? Seeking to practice “good” lean is half the battle!

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Jorge B. Wong July 28, 2015

I own a farm and manage an agricultural services cooperative (seeds, fertilizer, chemicals, agric machines, planting, fertilizing, spraying, harvesting, processing, selling, etc).  We grow food.

I can tell I am doing lean right when:

1. I am walking, riding a horse or a cycle in the gemba (farm fields, processing plant, silo storage, customer warehouse/store, end customer kithchen and dining room) ... instead of spending time in my desk/office (email, reports. Now, with technology I can see the fields, even individual plants using cameras, sensors or even drones. But nothing can be compared when  I use my 5+ senses to see, hear, smell, touch, taste and feel the weather, the soil, the plants, the pests, etc.

2. I see my team identifying problems and waste (muda) as early as possible and responding with a stop gap measure, followed by some deeper root cause problem solving/mitigation, SPC, A3-PDCA, design of experiments, 6 Sigma, you name i.

3. When we (managers) acknowledge -as early as possible- we have problems and prioritize and act on such problems according with the impact to the customer (who eats te food we produce and who process the cropos we harvest).

The least we do the three things above, the more we do lean wrong.







Michael Balle August 4, 2015



This is so cool, I lived for 5 years deep in French farmland and still have many conversations with good friend and neighbour wheat farmer (how much fertilizer/organic, how to deal with weird bugs, etc. as well as selling strategies on markets).

I'd love to hear more about lean applied to farm work! exciting! how about a piece for Lean Post or Planet Lean? This is eciting, thank you for your comment.

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