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4Ps Prove Lean Applies Everywhere


“Your stuff is great,” say people who come to my sessions about successful lean implementation, “but I don’t work in manufacturing so this won’t work for me.”

Perhaps these people assume my lean teachings don’t apply because I was taught at Toyota by Japanese trainers and learned through ten years of experience in production. Or maybe they’ve heard too much about lean success at other manufacturers. But I know that lean applies everywhere—and it is my Purpose as a trainer to one day eliminate this question from occurring. And my plan to do this is to address it at the root cause—which I believe is a misunderstanding about the key principles that spurred the development of the tools, methods, and procedures of TPS. I’d like to help people translate lean thinking to any organization.

Many people get confused because they believe that lean is no more than a set of tools such as 5S and kanban and ways of reducing waste that are effective (and only useful in a manufacturing setting.) But that is far from the truth.

In the wonderful book The Birth of Lean, it is pointed out that Taichii Ohno basically developed the Toyota Production System (TPS) as a set of “tools” or “countermeasures” to help them be more effective, efficient and develop people. (“Ohno-san wasn’t consciously working on any system at first. He was simply [solving problems] and ended up creating a system,” according to Michikazu Tanaka, who learned from Ohno directly.) I chuckle when I tell folks that not ALL the tools worked even within the walls of Toyota. And it's not even the tool that matters most. What counts above all is the thinking behind the tool that I try to translate.

I’ve found that people can begin to translate lean to their organization—regardless of what it does—when they study four basic principles of lean, which I call the 4Ps. I am building here on Jim Womack’s argument that lean is about 3Ps: People, Purpose, and Process. To that I would add Problems.

So when people say to me, "this is just for manufacturing", I ask the following questions:

1.  Do you have a purpose to your organization?

2.  Do you have people in your organization?

3.  Do you have processes that create some type of output or service in your organization?

4.  Do you have problems within your organization?

When they answer yes to all these questions above (I am waiting for the day when someone replies to one of these with a no), I tell them they can implement the “thinking processes” to this thing we all call LEAN by working to differentiate the tools from the Process or thinking behind it.  That’s when I see the light bulbs turn on. Let's look at each one briefly.


Purpose, to me, is all about True North: a guiding beacon that provides direction as a company and leads the company to successful thinking that fosters good leadership. At  Toyota our True North was:  Customer First thinking, making the highest quality product, at the lowest cost, with the shortest lead time, in the safest manner, all while respecting people. This cut across all our key performance indicators as a company and it was an evolutionary statement.  We never got there because if we did we raised the bar and improved. Purpose is why you are doing business!


Cliches may be suspect if they’re too familiar, but I’m going to let this one fly anyway since it happens to be true: people are the most important asset in your organization!  They determine the rise and fall of your business; and in the lean system, they are counted on as the key to long-term success. If we don't invest in our people then we are missing out on the extraordinary brainpower they have to make a difference. It is our job as leaders to develop their thinking every day at the gemba by asking the right questions. People are the heart and soul of lean thinking and without their buy-in, engagement, involvement, and understanding of how it ties to purpose and alignment of their work; then our gains will be short-term gains at best.  I remember when I was promoted into management at Toyota my trainer said to me, "Tracey san, do you realize that 50% of your job now is to develop your people"!  I'm here to tell you this is KEY!


Do you realize as human beings that our lives are centered around processes? When you get down to it everything we do has some type of Process to it. If there is an output created then there is a Process involved. It is our role as a leader to document these processes and standardize them so your people understand the expectations. We are creatures of habit. To get up everyday and get ready for work you have a Process or a routine that is followed. By Process I mean a sequence of events/steps that have to happen to create the outcome we want. For example most people enjoy their coffee in the morning; some may have coffee pots set for a specific time to start brewing at 5am. Some prefer to start this when they wake up.  If I like mine with cream and sugar then I insert a specific amount to meet a personal standard I’ve set for taste. When there are discrepancies that occur we should be able to track back through our Process steps to understand how it occurred. As Taichii Ohno says, "without a standard there can be no kaizen!" 

So standards are just the processes we do. We may not do them in the same way, which requires you as a leader to uncover or create the best known method in order to gain consensus and buy-in (as discussed above). And then, if there is a better way we improve. So in regard to standards/processes as I was taught, you first must define what you feel the best know method is, then we must achieve it by looking at repeatability and predictability.  Once its achieved then we try and maintain, and if maintained for a certain period of time (in my experience 1-2 months it was the expectation to raise the bar and improve the standard which takes us back- define again- DAMI- Define-Achieve-Maintain-Improve. That folks is the heart and soul continuous improvement.

Please understand that a solid purpose, a workforce of engaged people, and documented processes that are recognized by everyone as Standards, all set you up beautifully to recognize abnormalities…which takes us to the last P.


When we have the ability to recognize abnormality at a glance we are light years ahead of most organizations. I often ask the question:  How do you know you have a problem?  I often hear, “well it happens a lot”.  I can remember once saying that to my Japanese trainer. He replied, “Oh, a lot I do not understand, please explain”.  This was his way of teaching me NOT to make assumptions without having the facts. What did I mean by “a lot”? If we don't have documented standards, then we can not see when things are abnormal, which leaves us to guessing, which turns into symptom fighting. This also tends to remove the ability to hold our people accountable for their actions. Having Standards that enable people to identify when things are not normal, and to recognize this gap from standard as a problem, provides an opportunity for a problem-solving method that trains, teaches, improves, fosters learning. Once the abnormality is discovered and properly framed, we can apply PDCA (plan do check act) thinking in the form of the 8-step problem solving Process to eliminate the gaps. To me, problem solving is the glue that makes it all stick together! Without the 4P's you probably have a fire hose on your back.  Just a guess! :)

So if you have any doubts that lean is just a manufacturing based methodology, then I would like to challenge you to think differently about the thinking behind lean and that it can be translated into ANY organization. I promise!  


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