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What lean concepts are most difficult to teach?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

In your experience of teaching lean, what do you find most difficult to teach?

Thank you for this intriguing question – I need to think about it. Surprisingly, when companies embark on lean programs, what I find most often missing is an understanding of pull. But that’s not the hardest concept to teach. Once people have understood the centrality of pull to give meaning to day-to-day work, reveal problems, and get people fixing issues day after day, they grasp the idea of only producing what is being asked for by customers easily enough.

Come to think about it, what I find hardest to teach are standards. In most companies I know, standards are confused with company policies or procedures, not personal knowledge about the ideal way of doing this or that.

Understanding vs. Learning

For instance, if we take the teaching class as a Gemba, students find it hard to distinguish understanding from learning:

  • Understanding is about getting a mental picture of “I get it”; I can see how this can be so – it makes sense, somehow.
  • Learning means recognizing the situation in real life and knowing how to address it.

Typically, the brightest students are not necessarily the best learners. People who are good at “getting it” are not necessarily good at “trying it.” For instance, they might say something like: “Oh, I see. If kanban cards dictate what needs to be produced at every moment, the team leader’s role is essential to make sure the team is able to respond to the cards, solve or flag problems if it can’t – and , yes, I see that the hierarchy needs to be a chain of help to support the team leader – this is how the JIT and jidoka pillars come together.”

Yet, at their own workplace, they will strive to implement kanban without ever thinking about teams and team leaders. (This happens often.)

When students are enthusiastic about a book they read, I ask them “What idea from the book are you working on in your own day-to-day practice” … and rarely get any answer.

On the Gemba, I can think of many cases where we have a pull system going and where problem-solving is happening on a daily basis. Clearly, these companies perform better than they used to and better than competitors, but when, during a gemba walk, the CEO asks to see standards, we’re frequently greeted by the same embarrassed silence.

People are willing to spend time on problem-solving – particularly if the CEO asks for it and is interested during gemba visits – but very rarely on writing down the conclusions of their problem solving or kaizen efforts. They feel this is a company matter, not an individual one. Taylorist thinking that experts define the process and workers apply it is never far behind – someone should gather all that knowledge and put it in a system. As if.

Responsibility for Standards

The hardest part of lean is finding people who take responsibility for their own (or their own team’s) learning. In the end, any company is a collection of people doing stuff, and competitiveness is all about how better each person does their stuff and how better they work with each other to make something for customers.

Taking responsibility for your own learning means starting a diary in some shape or form, whether a notebook, a word or Excel file, or LinkedIn posts, and start collecting the technical things one learns in the course of resolving problems or improving work processes, in the manner of the many amateur scientists of the XIXth century who would collect bugs or pebbles and then share their findings.

Standards start with the individual drive, commitment, curiosity, etc. to collect knowledge and discard wrong ideas. As these specific points get collected and shared and compared with similar problems in other circumstances, then they can become collective standards – but only then.

A friend, a lean officer, recently asked me the difference between kaizen and problem-solving. I spouted the dogma without much thinking, you know, “kaizen is improving a standard whereas problem-solving is closing the gap between the real situation and a standard.” I realized that this answer was both exact and completely useless. Why was she asking me about the difference between kaizen and problem-solving? A more useful answer would have been: “Start collecting all the meanings of the word ‘kaizen’ you can find and make up your own mind.”

Lean always works in the earlier phases of orienting teams towards real customer demand, solving obvious problems, and eliminating obvious waste. Just start tracking output and come regularly to see how you can help a team with its problems and you’ll see performance improve visibly and …  stall. At some point, teams must start formulating their own standards, and visualizing the gaps with these standards to discuss why:

  • The standard wasn’t applied in this context because of …
  • The standard is plain wrong in this situation …
  • There is no standard for this unexpected case ….

But this requires teams to take spontaneous ownership for their own learning, which, in turn, requires the right kind of incentives and managerial support to help them do so. Standards and the taking care of one’s own standards remain what I find more difficult to teach, and, so far, I haven’t found a great way of getting better at it (I’ve tried several) so any suggestion is welcome!

6 Comments | Post a Comment
Don Scott August 29, 2017

The hardest thing I had to teach was how to document the new (and hopefully improving) standard. It was hard to teach, because it was hard for me to do. It was far removed from the excitement and fun of the actual improvement; tedious, technical, mostly textual. It also had to be accessible and reproducible if the doc got lost. It 'felt' wrong too, like writing it down was saying "this is how it's done from now on." - never found an acceptable substitute for a through SOP, though.

Marianne August 29, 2017

Our company has just begun our lean journey in March 2017. I think we are struggling with some of the items you have under your responsibility of standards section of your post.  We have put together some great teams at our company involving those that touch the process being worked on, utilized many lean tools to help us identify waste and identify the value, and have come up with 30,60,90 day goals and completion deadlines.  We are not seeing much improvement across the teams (a few have done very well) when looking at our metrics.  Any ideas of what we might be doing wrong? We are wondering if we have to many lean teams going on making it difficult to roll all the implementations out??? Any advice for what we should look at?

Michael Ballé August 29, 2017

Hi Marianne

It's hard to say without seeng your gemba, bu if your company is fresh in a lean journey, chances are that early issues are not about standards but getting pull right - making sure production pace follows (leveled) customer pace.

Pulling will make issues come out, which then needs solving, and at first, basic Manpower, Machine, Materials and Methods analysis is enought to get quick wins - standard become an issue once you've "cleared the window."

Certainly too many lean teams are not likely to be helping. The first step is to make sure production teams clearly understand their daily to hourly targets, get them to recognize and write down all the obstacles from achieving these problems and giving them technical support to solve the problems.

Does this make sense?

Best, Michael

Anna September 5, 2017

From my experience perspective what is difficult depends on where we are with the Lean transformation.

On the top what Michael you have already said, the difficult part is to get a buy in of the leadership so the lean concept itself. If in between leadership there is not even one person who understands what does it mean to be lean company, the chances of being successful is almost zero and getting a buy in from others is mission impossible. Leadership and managers need to be convinced that lean is the way the business is run, not something that is done in parallel of doing the business.

Michael Ballé September 6, 2017


This is indeed the core issue in the "battle of ideas". On one hand, we believe that "lean" is special knowledge from Toyota we need to learn and transfer outside of Toyota, and some CEO are fully on board with it, following Art Byrne's example, visit Toyota, find sensei and run experiments to learn (we present some in The Lean Stratgy)

On the other side, many CEOs believe lean is "any continuous improvement program", which is an idea supported with many consultants who consider that access to Toyota or sensei is too demanding and restrictive, and in that case, as the CEOs see nothing distinctive, they delegate it to an internal team or external consultants as an operational program.

Both these positions are very stark and underly the lean debate. In the early years, the debate was "my Toyota knowledge is more accurate than your Toyota knowledge" (which is kind of silly because Toyota sites differ unusually widely from one another), but the debate has now shifted to "we study and follow Toyota" versus "lean doesn't need Toyota any more as long as it's continuous improvement."

Wehn we get to specific tools such as operations standards and standardized work, understanding their origin and purpose is VERY relevant to their success, because if not we default to our mainstream Taylorist/Fordist conditioning and radically misinterpret and, as you point out, fail to engage senior management's interest in looking for smarter ways to compete - self-defeating, really :^)

Kevin September 7, 2017


What a fantastic insight you've given me, "Leadership and managers need to be convinced that lean is the way the business is run, not something that is done in parallel of doing the business".

I will use this as I pursue the journey.

Thank you!


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