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If lean is valid in all situations doesn't that make it an ideology?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Is lean really valid in all situations? That sounds like ideology to me!

Can you think of a situation where you can’t ask yourself: Do my customers smile with satisfaction when they use my product or service (or frown with annoyance)? Or: Am I only making one when I’ve sold one (or procuring one when I’ve used one)? Or: Is all the hard work we’re doing really necessary to get the job done for customers (why would customers want to pay for me doing my accounts, having them certified, etc.)?

Yes, I’m cheating. I’m assuming lean = deep thinking, not lean = operational excellence.

You’re asking a deep question, which did make me think a lot, and unfortunately, I’m not good enough a writer to answer simply, so I’ll be using long words – please bear with me.

In studying Toyota’s success in the late eighties, we all thought they had hit upon an organizational solution. After all, this was our obsession at the time, with business process reengineering and whatnot (I plead guilty, I wrote a book about it). We thought that if we could only:

  • Map value streams and organize around value streams with value stream managers and so on,
  • Improve the flow of value by having multi-process cells delivering full products – or fuller chucks of products, rather than having everything broken down by specialized departments,
  • Accelerate the flow of value by establishing pull systems simulating customer demand through the cell network rather than scheduling everything through the central MRP,
  • Engage everyone in kaizen in seeking the perfect processes by eliminating variation,

Then, somehow, we should reach a Toyota-like level of competitive performance. We often did improve operations visibly.

It was crazy days. At the time I was juggling my doctoral research, business school teaching jobs, and my first lean consulting assignments. I was helping a bunch of crazy guys create cells in factories in a week.

On the night of Wednesday to Thursday, we moved the machines around to create flow (imagine moving a several tons robot to create a cell) and hoped the factory would restart on Thursday morning – which it mostly… didn’t. 

Yes, this was pure ideology. But to be fair, considering the state of industrial thinking back then, in the early 1990s, it also worked, often spectacularly.

We’d learned this approach from ex-Toyota consultants who had adapted Toyota’s “kaizen” into these five-days “break the logic” workshops to fit with what Western companies were asking for – quick results with a repeatable method. Trouble is, of course, that when all you know is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.

Organizational vs. DevelopmentalThese techniques are not meant as organizational solutions to apply and magically make things better. They are meant as developmental exercises to practice seeing your current situation in a new light and find opportunities for improvement.

At the same time, I was observing, purely as a researcher, how Toyota was proceeding with one of its suppliers. I was very puzzled because Toyota engineers had a completely different approach. Yes, they did start by organizing a rough pull right away from the production cell to a logistics area every couple of hours. But then they mostly asked the supplier’s engineers to pull out their own specs for their process and fix issues one after the other. The big fight then was on batch size – which I guess is organizational to a degree. But mostly they left the organization alone. What they did was solve one problem after another. Results were not only spectacular but also sustainable.

Toyota’s lean was developmental. By giving set exercises to do, it expected people to look deeper into what they were doing, click, and take initiative from insights. Think of it as an Asian approach, like meditation or martial arts. I’m told that the original meaning of Kung Fu is “any discipline or skill achieved through hard work and practice.”

In this worldview, the student takes responsibility for her learning (as opposed to our notion of “training” people – often against their will), and the master sets formal exercises for the student to practice and practice and practice until the student “gets it.” There are many such exercises in lean:

And so on.

These techniques are not meant as organizational solutions to apply and magically make things better. They are meant as developmental exercises to practice seeing your current situation in a new light and find opportunities for improvement.

These developmental practices work on the following basis:

  • Use a lean tool to see the waste in what you observe at the Gemba;
  • Imagine an ideal, guided by lean principles;
  • Recognize the obstacles, and observe as many factors as you can;
  • Imagine the next thing you’re going to change;
  • Try it, see what happens, and reflect deeply about the underlying lean principles.

This develops you both by deepening your understanding of situations, learning to work with others and listening to their point of view, and building together steps towards the ideal. Practicing the tools with the principles in mind develops awareness, thoughtfulness, and resourcefulness – in other words, creativity or inventiveness.

The Clever Part

If you see lean as a bunch of organizational solutions, then, yes, it quickly becomes an ideology because these solutions don’t necessarily apply. For instance, at the two ends of the volume continuum they don’t make much sense:

  1. If you’re in full boom, can sell everything you produce, such as if you’re working a new technology everyone wants, then don’t worry about lean. Set up resources as quickly as you can while the demand lasts (hoping that it will, the specter of the Gartner hype curve always looms) ideology2. If you’re making single, all-different, customized products then many of the mass production ideas such as continuous flow and batch sizes simply don’t apply immediately.

However, if you see lean as a developmental method, then, of course, it’s always valid. The questions it asks are always sensible and interesting even if the answers often feel messy and strange – and often appear impossible. That’s the point.

Now for the really clever part: what makes lean transformational?

The fact is there is an organizational element to all lean exercises. One of the key insights we’ve picked up from Toyota is to start with the precision logistics. For instance, the team of AramisAuto.com, a digital company that sells cars over the Internet, has spectacular results (recaptured growth, double the EBITDA) by starting with establishing a pull system in the flow of cars.

At first, everyone resisted because the story in the company is “we can’t control transport.” But then through sheer persistence, people learned that, yes, you could set up precise appointments for trucks to move the right car at the right time for the set date with the customer:

Organizational ? Developmental

And then, in other cases, some of the purely developmental exercises the teams set themselves led to new organizational solutions. For instance, the refurbishment factory that prepares used cars for resale on the site (the company offers a serious guarantee) had an on-going recruitment problem. After looking into the problem deeply and trying many things, they concluded they needed to have their own local HR function rather than attempt to do everything from headquarters and hired a local HR which had a hugely positive impact with many HR subjects at the plant, which made keeping the pull system going so much easier.

Developmental ? Organizational

Rather than oppose organizational and developmental, we can make them work in tandem. Organizational becomes developmental, developmental becomes organizational, and this is the dynamic that creates the adaptive solutions that support profitable sustainable growth by involving all people all the time in building together the organization of tomorrow by responding smartly to the challenges of today.

I truly believe this kind of thinking is relevant to any situation – if one keeps in mind that all we know about lean, TPS, tools and so on is a starting point, not an endpoint. Lean gives us standard exercises by which we can begin our practice to discover how to lean organizations by developing people and discover… what we discover. The path starts at the same place because this we know, and then each person forges their own journey, with destination unknown.

7 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani April 1, 2019

James P. Womack says: "While progress has been made over the past 20 years, many in the lean community see gaps in the depth, breadth, and spread of lean thinking. 1. We have not seen the scale or magnitude of lean transformations we hoped to see..." It is clear that top leaders do not share the view that Lean is relevant to all situations. They may be mistaken, but that is beside the point. The institution of leadership and associated business logic views classical management as having greater validity in all situations. It is necessary to understand why if Lean is to advance (https://tinyurl.com/y6vz9kdx).

Jorge B. Wong April 2, 2019

Firstly a quote from Mike Rother: 

"Like everything else we do in the West, or at least in the USA, we try to get there fast by skipping the basics."

So, let's get some clarity on the terms we are using or implying. 

Ideology: A system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

Panacea: A solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases.

Methodology: A system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity.

Toyota Production System: An organizational system based on Just-In_time, Jidoka (automation with a human touch), Standardized Work and other methods ...to change or model a culture X to a culture of Kaizen to eliminate or at least minimize waste, unbalance and overburden in a process (a relentless and never-ending, but harmonic and balanced pursuit of people/process/product or service perfection and customer value) as well as the introduction of timed Kaikaku (sporadic technological breakthroughs)... by changing a set of key behaviors.

How to change a culture (John Shook): "It’s one thing to say the culture changed (at NUMMI) because we put in the Toyota Production System or changed the managers or management system, but it’s another to define exactly what really changed the culture."

How Culture Changes — and Doesn’t (John Shook)

"The lessons from NUMMI are consistent with organizational development leader Edgar Schein’s model of corporate culture. Schein proposed that the way to change culture is to change cultural artifacts — the observable data of an organization, which include what people do and how they behave. Anyone wanting to change a culture needs to define the actions and behaviors they desire, 
then design the work processes that are necessary to reinforce those behaviors."

The foundation for culture change: (John Shook): "What changed the culture at NUMMI wasn’t an abstract notion of “employee involvement” or “a learning organization” or even “culture” at all. What changed the culture was giving employees the means by which they could successfully do their jobs. It was communicating clearly to employees what their jobs were and providing the training and tools to enable them to perform those jobs successfully.

"...on a practical level, the most important and difficult “cultural shift” that has to occur in a lean manufacturing transformation revolves around the entire concept of problems. What is our attitude toward them? How do we think about them? What do we do when we find them? What do we do when someone else finds and exposes one? The andon process is about building in quality by exposing problems. Sometimes those problems are of our own making. Exposing them can be a very personal and threatening matter.

So, (1) attitudes towards detecting, communicating and displaying problems and (2) the problem-solving approach had to change. These pair were, are and will be key to change behaviors, habits, and culture. 

Source: https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/how-to-change-a-culture-lessons-from-nummi/

How do you change behaviors, habits, for the better?

Kata:  a Japanese word, meaning literally: "form" (? or ?), is a detailed choreographed pattern of movements made to be practiced alone, but are also practiced within groups and in unison when training. It is practiced as a way to memorize and perfect the movement being executed. There are many professions which use the term Kata, but Kata as a term is known generally by the Martial Arts world, and typically reserved for Japanese empty hand combat systems (Karate -meaning empty hand).

Kaizen Kata: (JBWK) A combination or system of coordinated (sometimes nested) PDCA or Kaizen cycles to change a process or a product/service from a specific "current condition" towards a well defined "target condition", under expert coaching and guidance. 

Toyota Kata (Mike Rother): "It's not an implementation as a tool in lean. It is a way of changing behaviors. Establishing new behaviors takes practice and coaching....Make no mistake – you don’t 'implement Toyota Kata'.” 


So, is the above-described process and system (TPS or its surrogate Lean) an ideology, maybe a panacea, or a methodology? To me, TPS or its surrogate LEAN is all of the above...but much more.

To me, at the practical and fundamental level, applying the PDCA scientific method for problem-solving and for problem prevention, be it in manufacturing, service delivery or product development...while coaching and developing committed people, with the aim of improving or innovating products and services while achieving higher and higher customer or user value...is both an aspiration and a way of life.  And a way of life is ...A CULTURE, A REALITY, not just an ideology, panacea or methodology.

Call it whatever you want. But as an amateur martial artist, I prefer the Kata approach and name: Toyota Kata or Lean Kata. Rother is on target. 


Jorge B. Wong April 2, 2019

Want to change, transform, the world, the country, the company, the value stream, the town, my process, my neighboorhood, my home, my business, my operation...?    I need to change, kaizen myself first, every day. 

"You must be the change you wish to see in the World" ---Mahatma Ghandi

Alex Gray April 2, 2019

I've have to agree with the final comments in your agurment. Lean is just a starting point. It should not be viewed as the end all solution to every problem. That said, you can still apply lean and use it as your starting point for any problem. With this in mind, you could say that lean is valid in all situations, whether or not it results in the end answer.

Robert April 3, 2019

This is an extremely important question. I might be controversial on my take but here's how I’ve been working things out...
Believe Lean in its intended form is an Ideology and that's not a bad thing. In fact it might be its greatest strength if viewed as such by its advocates.
Most of us likely believe in the power of individuals. We have faith that by striving towards a society were individuals are empowered to use reason we can collectively overcome tremendous obstacles even if it’s not perfect in its pursuit.
This way of thinking is essentially the Ideology of Liberalism created during the Enlightenment period and first expressed in Philosophy. The building blocks that allowed the development of this Ideology go extremely far back and are often expressed in mythological form through religion.
What does this have to do with Lean? Well think of a business where you really experienced a Lean culture. Did they not have a strong faith in the power of the individual? Did they devoutly believe that scientific thinking and reason would collectively allow them to achieve their vision? Did they strive to find the balance between traditional structure and the unknown potential = almost every mythological story about Father (order), Mother (nature or chaos) & Son (hero who finds the way by creating new order from the potential in the chaos).
I am not trying to state that Lean and Liberalism are one and the same Ideology. Of course many critical Lean Principles such as Flow & Pull Value are more technical in nature. What is important for me is recognized that we function on Ideological footing and Lean offers some great Ideals for all.


Michael Ballé April 4, 2019

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments.

I am intrigued by the thought that ideology might not be such a bad idea - I've had to look it up :^)

ideology: a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy

If we go by that definition, indeed, lean is an ideology. To me the common phrase meant something closer to "impervious to fact and challenge" - so I agree that a key to practicing lean is searching for ideals that are well defined in lean (as well as pull/stop at defect, which are also ideals) - the North Star practice is all about expressing ideas. 

On the other hand, there is a string component of genchi genbutsu - seeking consensus on challenges and problems by go and see and conducting improvement experiments, which is precisely about abandoning ideas when they are found incorrect - and has led many journalist to affirm that "Toyota is abandoning lean" whilst they have just changed their minds locally about something.

A non-ideological ideology? :^)))

Ladislav Zastresek April 5, 2019

Dear All, 

I have very much enjoyed reading through the articles and it's comments. But is not just solving problems and getting from current situation to target situation through steps? Why call it lean.? I am on a side of Mike Rother learning as clearing the gap comes at expense of trialing solutions. As From Shewart cycle PDSA, classics scientific exploration takes place not any Lean principles and tools concepts that have already been defined. Those tools can help, but if your only tool is a hammer everything is a nail.

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