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A Revelation at the Gemba

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During my travels this summer, both personal and for LEI, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the Institute’s 20+ year history while thinking about my role in shaping its future. I’ve also been talking to many of you, the members of the Lean Community, taking advantage of community gatherings like the annual Designing the Future and Lean Coaching Summits, to better understand your current challenges. I’m also meeting with potential collaborators who can help further LEI’s mission of advancing lean thinking via thought-leading content, experimentation, coaching, and training. 

Then, on a gemba walk I was on recently, as I learned firsthand about one organization’s approach to lean transformation, an idea for LEI’s future emerged. An idea that has very deep roots. 

I stood there watching, awestruck by how effective a management system could be at keeping a large, complex organization focused on perpetuating a culture of continuous improvement. But I also realized that as effective as this system is, it’s playing out as a series of daily and weekly routines practiced by thousands of individuals who are unfamiliar with certain fundamentals of lean thinking and practice. In this case, the fundamentals of WORK improvement - observation, breakdown, experimentation, and standardization - where root causes can be found and problems can be resolved. So while this organization is institutionalizing improvement on a very big scale, its overall effectiveness is constrained.

Lost in Translation (and Proliferation)

When given a name and introduced over 30 years ago, lean thinking was truly revolutionary. LEI’s founder Jim Womack and other early collaborators took the lead in explaining and promoting its ideas to the U.S. manufacturing industry, helping address its myriad challenges. For those who wanted to apply the ideas, LEI developed a handful of workbooks and workshops that helped people learn and practice the fundamentals of value, flow, pull, built-in quality, standardized WORK, and more. What emerged in those early years were lean practitioners, companies, case studies, simulations, and consultants - all coming out of manufacturing. 

Then, in the intervening years, as lean thinking steadily migrated beyond the factory floor to other industries, LEI and the growing number of lean thought leaders and consultants spent time translating lean into different contexts.

Over time, however, even on some of the same factory floors where lean pioneers once worked, lean fundamentals were lost. On a recent visit to a manufacturing company, an LEI coach noticed a few LEI workbooks on a dusty bookshelf. “But I saw no evidence of lean on the shop floor,” he said. #shopfloordontlie

The first generation of lean practitioners have moved up or moved on, replaced by subsequent generations who, while they may have received dog-eared workbooks like Creating Continuous Flow also inherited (vs. led) lean implementations of various depths and breadths (and have been distracted by an overwhelming flood of lean, and “lean”, this and that and the other thing, each vying for ‘likes’ and the attention of online algorithms, making it increasingly hard to identify good information and teaching).

The good news is that the community of lean thinkers is growing! The dual-challenge, however, is ensuring that those who are being exposed to “lean” are also being exposed to its fundamentals AND that lean thinkers become practitioners who are making real changes so that value creators can spend more time making our world a better place. 

What’s Old Needs To Be New Again

For LEI, this creates an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is for us to go back to basics and help second- and third-generation lean thinkers learn the fundamentals, updating how those fundamentals are presented, explained, taught, and made relevant to today’s challenges. This includes sharing what’s been learned about adopting lean thinking in nontraditional (i.e. non-manufacturing, non-operational) settings. 

The challenge, on the other hand, requires deep hansei (i.e. critical self-reflection) at the Institute. What is it about LEI’s content - books, workbooks, articles, etc. - that’s limiting our reach and allowing for misunderstandings and/or limited applications? But also, what about the training we provide? And the coaching we can arrange for on-site? In other words, why aren’t the brilliant ideas that LEI started sharing 20+ years ago visible on more shop floors, in more office settings, in more hospitals, on more retail sales floors? 

As the Labor Day weekend becomes a distant memory and we exchange the summer’s activities for those associated with the fall, it’s this realization and questions for reflection that will be driving our WORK and many of the changes you’ll see in the coming months. In fact, we’ve already begun experimenting with various “next-gen” learning experiences such as the Lean Leadership Learning Tour in October that’s put on with Toyota, and a Lean Transformation Learning Tour in November. We’re also rethinking the Lean Post and planning a relaunch of our podcast feed WLEI. We hope you will stay tuned! 

Even better, we hope you will be in touch. I’ve talked to some, but not nearly enough of you. To facilitate that, tomorrow, Friday, September 6th, you can join me for an Ask-Me-Anything on the Lean Post

We have so many problems to solve. Let’s start by grasping the current situation together!


Josh Howell
President, Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.
Boston, MA

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani September 6, 2019

Hansei includes asking the question: "What is it about classical management that remains so appealing given the benefits of Lean management?" This is an aspect of going back to the basics that, if ignored, will in the future result in same "no evidence of Lean" outcomes. Second- and third-generation Lean practitioners would be wise to better understand the incumbent management system. Please see https://lnkd.in/gR9hRsh.

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