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There are so many lean management principles to know and tools to master at the start – is there an easier way to begin?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Isn’t there an easier way to start lean? For a beginner, it seems like such a mountain to climb – all these things to know, tools to master, counter-intuitive principles to grapple with. Can’t we make access easier?

Sure: start with agile. I’m not being facetious or dismissive, and I agree that lean is a huge big mess and can seem daunting. I was on the Gemba recently in a digital company and a young manager confessed that her boss wants her to practice lean, but she’s already struggling just to manage the team she’d been given. At its simplest, agile will help her with:

  • Frequent deliveries and the opportunity to talk to her customers at each delivery.
  • Daily team briefs and the opportunity to talk to team members about their issues and priorities.
  • Burndown charts and the opportunity to monitor visually how work is being carried out and with what productivity.

With those basic elements in place and maintained daily, both the manager and the team members have clear reference points and can get to work. To be fair, when you meet the founders of agile, you hear there is a lot more to it than that – product design, developers’ skills, refactoring, etc. But it’s a place to start.

Lean is complicated because it does have an overarching goal of delivering higher quality with lower inventory, to make it short. Toyota’s fundamental intuition is that as companies grow, they tend to invent their own demand – created demand – on the basis of what is convenient to do to keep people working, not what customers actually ask for. Real demand means:

  1. Robust products with a few innovative features to fit current customer trends.
  2. No more inventory than is needed to fulfill existing orders, to keep the company focused on delivering flexibly and keeping costs down.
  3. Developing people so they design their own job and manage their own work.

The deeper problem here is that no production method can give you that. Agile is a production method: a way to organize work sensibly to ensure delivery – and an excellent one at that. But no amount of organizing production can give you lean’s three goals – precisely because market conditions keep changing. Being lean requires an education method, not just a production one.

5 Problems to Solve

Although the manager will probably be very happy with a production method – a way to handle her team – there is nothing there to help her do it right. She needs to solve a few basic management problems:

  1. Making the right product and output calls – frequent deliveries guarantee frequent contact with immediate customers, you can still get the overall product wrong, or ask too much or too little of the team.
  2. Solving day to day problems smartly – solving daily problems and putting out fires is a key part of any management job, and there is a right way – finding clever ways to solve issues, getting people engaged and finding fair solutions – and a wrong way – pushing the problem on someone else, making a bigger mess, pissing people (employees, bosses, partners) off.
  3. Consoling people in distress – a key role of any manager is to create a team environment where people want to come to work in the morning, and feel that if they don’t they let everyone down. Some managers foster conflict in their teams are unknowingly unfair. Other learn to accept that everyone has a life and empathy can go a long way.
  4. Maintaining the company’s culture, tradition, processes when relevant – the team functions into a whole, and there are times where defending the company’s way of doing things is essential, and times when it blocks progress because it’s silly. It’s very hard to know which is which.
  5. Drive change when its necessary – markets and companies change all the time, teams change as people change. Some managers enforce change thoughtlessly or resist it equally thoughtlessly. Others learn to build in flexibility in how the team works, which makes change an everyday affair.

In effect, the manager’s production system can just as well make her fail – she could be managing frequent deliveries, holding regular team briefs and monitoring her burndown charts and still achieve the wrong outputs, lose credibility with her seniors and customers, create a toxic team environment, and in the end – fail.

The lean goal of building-in the quality of delivery and working with low inventory to keep total cost down cannot be achieved by simply running a production system. It requires the smarts, the engagement, the stay-on-the-ball, the intuition and insight of everybody – it’s hard. In order to help managers achieve it, you need to complement the production system, whatever it is, with an education system.

Elements of a Lean Learning System

An education system is a set of principles and exercises that will let people distinguish good outcomes from bad. For instance:

  • Focus on problems first: Looking at customer complaints, although difficult and rarely pleasant, will make you face the weaknesses of your delivery understanding and direct you to think about it and react differently.
  • Reduce lead-times: Controlling lead-time and then reducing lead-time will force you to look at delivery issues and grasp problems in the delivery process.
  • Stop at defect: Stopping the process whenever someone has a doubt will force you to look at the real, current conditions of issues, rather than globalize them and interpret them as process issues.
  • Make work repeatable: Studying the standards you need to uphold so that work is as repeatable as possible, and processes can be switched from one to the other easily.

Adults don’t learn by acquiring vocabulary and applying concepts, as children do. Adult’s minds are full of ideas and experiences. Adults learn by experience: solving problems and changing their mind through testing changes first hand – this is why lean learning is centered on PDCA. Test one change at a time to figure out how the process really works.

The lean education system is based on a simple premise:

  • See waste, in any form – to customers, to employees, to society at large
  • Think of a next step improvement that could eliminate the causes of that waste
  • Try and see, try and see, try and see, until you change your mind and enrich your understanding

It doesn’t sound awfully complex, but in real life the resistance to such free thinking and experimenting are endless – from company standards, to company culture, to mean bosses, to difficult employees, everything is there to make you keep your head down and…. Produce. The lean system, such as it is, is there to create the conditions for learning through kaizen by visualizing processes and revealing problems – essentially the role of looking at customer’s reactions (churn and complaints), reducing lead-times through pull and flow, reacting faster through andon and poka-yoke and so on.

And, yes, I’m back to describing the full mountain, which is what you raised in the first place. But the truth is, I wouldn’t know what to advise to start with a simpler method. In lean terms, I could tell you to:

  • Set up a kanban to visualize exactly demand and figure out how your delivery system is organized and where the mismatches with real customer demand are obvious.
  • work with your suppliers to standardize components and information in order to make your own work repeatable and then optimize it.
  • Focus on 4M - Manpower (have we got the right staff with the right training), Machine (is all our equipment working 100%), Materials (do we have everything we need good on hand?) and Method (do we really understand the work?) – problem solving with your team.
  • Study and apply 5S in depth with your team to develop ownership of the workplace.

Still Discovering After 24 years

Any of these techniques will get you started, but will also turn into yet one more production method unless you make the mental effort of facing the mountain and understanding why we’re doing all of this – not facilitating delivery on the spot, but improving discovery and learning in the team – which will radically and sustainably improve delivery.

Of course, you need a production system – without it you burn and crash. But a production system will not make you perform any better than your competitors, or make your staff feel more engaged (with their work) and more involved (with their team and company). You need to overlay the production system with an education system that teaches people how to develop better judgement, greater initiative, and deeper thinking.

Which is what lean systems do, and why lean systems do require study and scratching your head – thinking is hard. Many shortcuts to grasping the full TPS have been tried, such as agile, but it’s a system – shortcuts, so far, devolve to production methods and focus so much on delivery that they lose all sense of discovery, which requires motivation and space to think. I wish I had better news, but there it is. On the other hand, passed the first disappointment that there is no quick and dirty way to do this, lean thinking is endlessly fascinating – look, 24 years after first encountering lean thinking, I’m still writing about it – and still discovering.

6 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani October 22, 2018

I recommend starting with Toyota-style kaizen. Our best examples of Lean transformation did just that. You steadily learn everything you need to know over time if you practice kaizen continuously.

Carl Watt October 22, 2018

Brilliant simple statement of agile in the context of Lean.  I'm working with an Agile team now and they are definitely in the "tool phase" that Lean was in.   Copying what is done by others, not why it is done.  Thanks Michael for another great post.

Raluca Florea October 23, 2018

If one is looking at the various manifestations, methods..tools of a certain state of mind will be bewildered and overhelmed. Reality is complex , thus I believe we should work more on inside to train attention, awareness, empathy and leadership..the rest will emerge naturally without  putting a name on it :)

My sincere admiration to your work!


Shalini M October 23, 2018

Thanks for giving a bigger picture of Lean.

Lean = Continuously getting educated to create demand

Lean encompasses Agile in true spirit. Lean is being agile.

Many thanks for clarifying various important points.

Linda Murphy October 23, 2018

We've found a good approach for starting lean with a team is to strive for a goal with the Toyota Kata starter routines, because it trains a Toyota-style mindset that can be applied broadly. Toyota Kata has a set of simple starter practice routines, so each organization can build on them and their own "(your company name here) Way" can begin to emerge from there.

As you say, trying to comprehend and replicate someone else's system is complicated. And it probably won't even work. In my view, get people practicing lean thinking by practicing some scientific starter routines on goals or problems that are strategically meaningful in your organization, and then develop your way incrementally from there. If you keep learning and adjusting eventually your organization may grow to have an effective, complicated lean-style system that others can't simply describe and copy. It comes full circle.

Jon Miller October 23, 2018

I'm sorry but this seems like a nonsense question.

This person's struggle is real. It probably doesn't hurt to start with Agile. But we have far too little information to give this as a serious answer.

"There are so many lean management principles to know and tools to master at the start" - says who?

Where is this person hearing that it is necessary to know and master the tools and body of knowledge "at the start"? Is it an external voice or an inner voice of wanting complete understanding, mastery and certainty at the very start?

Why is this person getting started with lean management at all? What do they hope it will accomplish? 

On what basis was lean management selected as the right path to take to accomplish the goal, close the gap, etc?

What is the organizational context for lean management? Is it something that is just being explored? Being mandated to implement to a certain level by a certain date?

In other words, what does this person think they need to be able to do, and by when?

It is a strawman argument to set an impossible and unreasonable expectation and then ask, "Isn't there an easier way?"

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