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Don't Call It...Anything


Most companies that I visit to teach lean/continuous improvement/problem-solving/Toyota-methods (you get the picture?) misunderstand and misuse the word “lean.” It’s not just that a label like this rarely captures the essence of this approach. The problem has to do with coming up with a label in the first place.

I believe that the best approach would be not to label this practice at all—but I recognize that you need to put this knowledge into words and ideas that can be passed along to others. That’s what I do when I need to translate my 24 years of experience with Toyota’s approach into something that others can grasp.

So what’s wrong with a specific name or label? For starters, I have found that the more companies that I visit, the more I realize that calling this "Lean" or some other phrase generates enormous skepticism from people doing the work. Confronted with what they see as a new "add-on" practice, a flavor of the month management fad, they fail to see that what we are really talking is about is changing how we do business and how we think as a company.

My thinking about this has evolved over time. When I first started consulting, I felt the work was all about the “tools.” Companies wanted to learn tools that they could easily put to work, and so of course, that's what they got. I think that at the time many of us consultants believed this was the best approach. And yet, as I have matured as an instructor/consultant, my thinking—like many I suspect—has evolved.

The reason for this goes back to my training at Toyota. When I started work there, our Japanese trainers led us with their questioning approach. It was not about learning a prescribed body of knowledge. As new leaders (or potential new leaders) we were both being led, and at the same time were expected to lead others. Their approach was all about embodying "respect for people" and developing the workforce as a team. As a matter of fact, in those early Kentucky days the trainers were learning as much as we were. It was a daunting task to try and translate a culture of thinking in a different language to a culture that wasn’t necessarily used to it.

In my time at Toyota (Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, or TMMK 1988-1998), I can’t recall one time ever that we labeled what we were doing with a specific word like "Lean.” Nor did we ever really think or talk about our daily actions as a "culture" during those early years. It was just in the atmosphere. There was nothing much written for us, so we relied on the actions of our leaders and their leaders. It wasn't until I left Toyota to teach others that words and labels and so forth have surfaced—and surged. We have somehow felt the need to give this approach a name. It could be tied to finding a way to spread the ideas, or market it, or other reasons. But I am not sure that what is labeled—and above all what newcomers perceive it to be—rings true with what I learned through experience. That’s a huge reason why calling this anything can have a hindering effect to a company trying to implement this thinking process.

When I start my training sessions these days, I do an ice-breaker to get a finger on the pulse of the group by asking each participant to define the words Lean and Culture. We put all the ideas on a flipchart and analyze the results. It's been amazing to see that a very high percentage of companies define it only as elimination of waste, or a "do more with less" mentality. Which by definition can be a correct assessment of lean, but in my experience the KEY element they are excluding is…?

Take a guess? How about PEOPLE?

The engagement, involvement, and development of people is an essential element that is sadly overlooked the majority of the time within an organization. To me, it’s the common thread I see missing in the vocabulary of companies trying to implement Lean, especially with high to mid-levels of leadership. Reducing this approach by labeling it and dividing it into productive tools and approaches invariably loses the essential aspect of the overall system — which is teaching others a way to teach and learn.

I focus on three key points when coaching others in helping this work take root:

  1. Without people and buy-in the tools with NEVER be sustained over the long-term.
  2. If you try to label your daily work as "lean" then it can be seen as the add-on.
  3. People do not seem to feel that have the time to add this work to their current workload.

When I hear this last objection in my sessions I share a quote from the late John Wooden:  “if you don’t have time to do it right the first time when will you have time to do it over?” Most leaders readily admit that they spend the majority of their time on rework or do-overs in a reactive manner. They find it hard to take the leap of faith needed to do this work NOW, and repeatedly.

Whatever you choose to call this work doesn’t need a label. It just needs an action. And that action is no more than a leader being present at the gemba, asking questions about the processes that produce their output. Does that really need a label? Do we have to call that something?  I know, how about “my job”!  Imagine that concept.

It’s very simple: lead by your actions. If you lead in a way that fosters the thinking and development of people by simply being on the floor and asking the right questions, then lean, lean culture, continuous improvement—it will simply happen by default. And guess what? You don't have to call it anything but HOW WE DO BUSINESS. If you embed it into your values it will be atmospheric as it was for us at Toyota.

Hey, it’s simple, it’s not easy!! No need to label. This was an expectation of our job, not a choice. Now go ask questions at the gemba and involve those people and watch change take place. It’s that easy, I know. I lived it!

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