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Tools Are Not the Purpose


Tracey’s last column, “A3: tool vs. process? Both”, really struck a chord with me, and got me thinking (great job Tracey!!!). I would like to share a story that illustrates this point.

“Eric, remember, the tools are not the purpose.”

These words still echo in my head. It was one of those personal epiphany days when many things became much clearer. There I was standing, Yamada-san staring back with one of his all-to-rare smiles.  I was an industrial engineer by degree with many years of experience in multiple functions under my belt. We had been though many “phases” of continuous improvement with quality circles in the early 80’s, JIT for America!! in the late 80’s, and synchronous manufacturing with kaizen events in the early 90’s.  This was now the late 90’s and we were attempting to take our continuous improvement to the next level.

I had been blessed with the opportunity to work with many good senseis (teachers), and this one in particular reset my views on continuous improvement. Up to that moment I had been laser focused on understanding the next tool and applying it. Better yet I was looking for a series of steps, a checklist, to organize the tools within.  Armed with the latest knowledge in tools and a checklist of steps I developed through experience, I thought I could walk into any area and solve any problem.  Better yet, I could leave that knowledge and checklist behind allowing the area to continue to solve problems themselves. 

But I was frustrated.  Our initiatives were not succeeding.  We were often late in implementation, were not seeing the results we expected, and continually ran over budget. Don’t even ask about how well we sustained our gains. With our new sensei, there was a glimmer of hope. We had just made a successful transformation of one of our assembly lines, on time, within budget, and; with reduced manufacturing costs significantly at a time when this was critical to our business. “One line down, nine to go”, I thought. I was ready to push forward with our next line with my tool/checklist mentality.

This is when my sensei stopped me. The next line was different. Not on the surface, but when you closely observed, it was very different. Different product mix; different skill sets; different customers; different critical features – and the list could go on. I can’t explain why “the tools are not the purpose” resonated so much that day, but a light came on.

I realized that tools ARE absolutely essential – but don’t make them your goal, your purpose. When tools become your purpose you often implement countermeasures that do not address the root cause of your issue. You forget that from problem to problem or project to project, many things change. What doesn’t change is the need to be successful (on time, within budget, impact the business, sustain results). And the need to rely on others in all phases of your project understanding, analysis, recommendation, implementation and sustainment. The A3 as a process will help you achieve all of this. My sensei was essentially telling me to FIRST step back and really understand the situation. Observe the process. What was really happening? What was the REAL problem? Creating a new line layout was not the purpose. There needed to be a benefit, a problem addressed. “kaizen is not a hobby” is another phrase he used on me many times.

You may be asking, “how does this relate to me?”  I think that Tracey’s fundamental point can’t be stressed enough: BOTH tools and process are essential. The tools are indeed useful and powerful—but they are a means to an end. That’s why coaches like me and Tracey and David spend so much time on this board urging you to, using whatever tools you have, grasp the situation BEFORE getting into deep analysis.  And keep posting your questions – they are great!  But don’t be surprised if we keep pressing you for more understanding on the current situation before we get into a tools discussion.  Remember the Charles Kettering quote, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”  So lets get to the gemba, observe and grasp the situation. 


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