Isn’t lean just a scam to squeeze teams for more production?
Dear Gemba Coach,
Lean is a scam. We’ve had consultants working with us on a “lean transformation” for two years and all they do is put pressure on teams for more and tell us that if it doesn’t work it’s because we don’t try hard enough. I’ve been reading the lean books and I feel that people like you who write about “respect” are pushing a smoke screen that allows consultants to just squeeze teams for more production without ever resolving the company’s deeper problems.
Are you guys pulling? Seriously, I hear what you’re saying and am not dismissing it at all, as I can very well visualize how this can be happening. But before we go further in this discussion, the first question is: Are you really doing lean or have you been sold old-fashioned Taylorism in the guise of lean?
Here are the three core criteria I’d use to evaluate how “lean” is your lean transformation program:
- How serious are we about giving value back to the customer? The lean strategy is about leveraging value from the entire supply chain by eliminating systemic muda (this is fractal, from engineering, design, and the supply chain to seven wastes on a workstation) in order to give it back to customers. The rule-of-thumb is expressed in thirds: 1/3 extra value to the customer, 1/3 we keep, 1/3 goes to suppliers who have contributed to the improvement effort.
- How determined are we to pull value across the supply chain? A just-in-time pull system is a device to align the entire operation (collaboration across boundaries) with (averaged) real-time customer demand. By withdrawing at short intervals across the value chain, one creates a creative tension that is focused on delivering good parts to internal customers (and then final customer) at the right time in the right sequence, and therefore solving all the problems that appear as a result of this pull tension.
- How committed are we to developing people? Working with people means first, not solving problems “administratively” but giving each person the means to solve their own problems (mostly visual management and support) as well as supporting them through both open-minded management and enabling systems so that they do solve their problems. In lean, we hire people to succeed at their jobs, not just do their jobs.
I am not dismissing your complaint, but please evaluate your lean effort according to these three dimensions, 0 to 10. This will tell you whether you’re indeed engaged in a lean initiative or just the usual operational excellence program.
I realize this might not help you out of your predicament, but it might help determine where, exactly, the feeling of being scammed comes from. I do not believe that lean is a scam, at all. I honestly believe that lean is a new way of doing business, pioneered by Toyota (who’s still ahead of the game with its lean programs, the Toyota Production System, the Toyota Development System and the Toyota Sales System). We’re trying to figure out what this means outside Toyota and the automotive industry.
As to consultants who are not committed to real lean, but sell the same old tired story as lean (the recent rash is selling grandpa’s management by objectives as hoshin kanri, completely ignoring the “catchball” principle) – what’s there to say? Buyer beware.
As to the charge that writing about “respect” is a smokescreen, well, this is indeed more complicated. Again, what do we mean by “respect”?
The origin of the phrase “respect-for-people” seems to be “respect-for-humanity,” which is quite different when you think about it. We’re not talking about being polite here (although that is good, for sure), we’re talking about respecting the facts that humans are … humans. In other words:
- Their time is precious: Every human’s life runs minute-by-minute, second by second. Every second of meaningless work we ask someone to do is an insult to their profound need to do something useful with their life, or at least their working time.
- When people are not challenged enough they get bored; when they’re overburdened, they get stressed: “Overburden” is an interesting concept because it can apply in many different situations. Asking someone to do a boring, meaningless, repetitive task is just as much an overburden as a dangerous work environment, or too much pressure on productivity. We’re always overburdening people. The lean question is: how much and on what dimension? What can we do to help them cope better? What can we do to reduce the overburden?
- People need to work in teams they can trust: No one is an island, and work is great if you look forward to seeing your colleagues, or can become hell if you can’t stand them. Doing everything we can to support teams and team spirit is a large part of respecting humanity.
- People need to be recognized for their efforts: Taylorism has us convinced we need to reward people for their results, and that may be true, but mostly people need to be recognized for making an effort and hate the unfairness of others apparently being rewarded or praised when everyone knows they’re really coasting and appropriating others’ work.
- There is real joy in creation: At the end of the day, everyone experiences deep fulfilling joy in creative acts, if the work of creation is not too difficult (such as fighting systems, others, or management to get anything done). A creative idea system is a key – often misunderstood – part of any lean system.
A Hope, Not a Scam
Lean systems are clearly designed to create the conditions for fruitful, meaningful work. How to deal with lean when management’s intent is to use the tool for productivity pressure and squeezing more out of people, I don’t know.
Creating the conditions for meaningful work through respecting people’s people-ness is essentially what we write about: how can we create work conditions where work is more natural and where people are hired to succeed at their job, not just to do their job? Although much of what I write is fiction, I do write it from real-life cases (which I then disguise to protect the innocent and guilty alike). I believe that the points we make are real, and not make-believe to hide an ugly truth.
Is lean a scam? I honestly don’t believe so. I think it’s a hope. Toyota showed us how there can be a better way both to work and compete, and lean is the sum of our efforts to understand this lesson and transfer it outside of Toyota and outside of the automotive industry. Have all our attempts been successful? Clearly not, and we learned many lessons on the way (not the least of which is to always go back to the basics of TPS). Still, here’s the door, and the room is large.
Can any hope be turned into a scam? Absolutely, lean or otherwise. We see this every day. But remember that any scam is a deal between the scammer and the scammed, who hopes to get something for nothing.
How Using Kanban Builds Trust
Kanban functions as a trust machine because everyone using it must understand what they have to do and why, says Michael Balle: "Our purpose here is to share our ideas on what we believe is important in lean thinking."
The Sanity of Just-in-Time
Path dependence is the worst enemy of smart resolution, argue the authors, who suggest greater "frame control" with enabling tools such as just-in-time to respect people on the frontline and respect the facts they share about what is happening to them. "Mastering the path as opposed to being led by it, means looking up frequently to reevaluate both destination and way as new information comes to light."
5S, Hygiene, and Healthy Habits
5S-like practice can uncover hidden beliefs and misconceptions, and pave the way to adopting new hygiene practices – as opposed to arbitrary imposition, argues Michael Balle, adding: In this community, we, of all people, have been trained to do so. Now is the time to start acting on it.