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Why Doesn't Lean Have a Seat at the Table?

by Steven Spear
October 11, 2019

Why Doesn't Lean Have a Seat at the Table?

by Steven Spear
October 11, 2019 | Comments (11)

Lean Production, as an approach to managing complex operations, was introduced more than 30 years ago. Yet, despite decades of Lean thinking and practice, the utter dominance of its industry by Toyota (the inspiration for lean), and the well-documented gains by those enterprises that have practiced lean in a high fidelity fashion, Lean is often viewed as a shop-floor skilled trade, to be assigned to subject matter experts in staff (not line) roles; and conducted through programs and initiatives rather than as fundamental to the means and methods of the firm.

A key reason is that Lean in particular, and other methods of achieving outstanding operations more generally, are primarily taught as the practice of tools and techniques—and not as a complete, coherent system of thinking that addresses the strategic concerns of senior leadership.  

Think, for example, about how “C-level” topics are taught and practiced. Finance, for instance, is grounded in theory: basic thinking about how, say, to value transactions. Getting paid sooner rather than later is better; having the right (option) to delay decisions is better; and diversifying versus concentrating risk is better. From three simple principles, a wealth of models can be constructed, scenarios can be considered, and decisions grounded in sound theory can be made. Similarly, strategy is also taught and practiced on the basis of theory, about how to create and capture value. In Michael Porter’s competitive advantage parlance, we want to construct barriers that prevent customers and suppliers from defecting, thereby strengthening their dependency on us and our ability to extract value from the situation. We also want to construct barriers to prevent intruders, thereby protecting us from vulnerabilities that would diminish our ability to create and capture value. Out of those simple ideas, strategists can construct and consider myriad possibilities.

Yet, that same ‘basic thinking,’ cause and effect based approach is not how Lean, Six Sigma, or the more recent Agile are taught and practiced.  More commonly, operations-oriented thinking is presented as collections of tools—value stream maps, pull systems, standard work, poke yoke, 4-, 5-, or 6-S for lean—without an explanation or understanding of how why or when their use is appropriate. What happens? In too many cases, Lean (or Six Sigma) gets practiced in a cultish fashion—devotees measuring fidelity through ritualistic use of tools. Or, it gets practiced in an analogous fashion—this situation looks like high volume repeatable manufacturing, so Lean applies. This situation does not look like high volume repeatable manufacturing, so Lean does not.

That’s unfortunate, because as created and practiced at Toyota at the highest levels, TPS is an expression of sound theory about how to manage the complex and dynamic systems through which value is created and delivered.

The premise is that when we gather people to work across myriad disciplines towards common purpose, what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it will be subject to countless errors, misunderstandings, mistakes, and difficulties. Therefore, if we want a system to perform, then it must constantly be generating feedback to draw our attention to what is going wrong, so we can contain the problem and immediately swarm it to understand its causes and to develop corrective actions.

How do we build such feedback into systems? First, we make a strong declaration of what we believe will actually work. So, we build heijunka boxes (as one example) as a way to give expression to the customer demands we are expected to satisfy; we construct value stream maps for sequential operations as our “best guess” of what has to get done, in what order, by whom to succeed in meeting that demand; we declare how work will be triggered and released (in a pull system), and we create standard work to increase the chance that the people responsible for individual work components will succeed.

In Toyota’s often copied temple, all this “declaration” loads on the Just in Time pillar. 

There’s more, however. Given that we are going to be wrong about something, we need to find out early often, so we can both contain the problem before it metastasizes and as a trigger to swarm the problem, understand its causes, to construct corrective actions. In Toyota’s parlance, that is the jidoka pillar, more generalized as being sure there are tests built into work to call out problems early and often. Poke yoke, andon, and the like all grow out of that belief that since surprises always occur, we need to see those so they can be quickly solved.

So, where does that leave us? Well, we probably want to avoid talking about Lean in ritualistic terms, we want to avoid advocating for Lean just because Toyota does it, and we want to avoid defining Lean by tools and particular practices alone. After all, a skilled electrician rarely joins the Board for high-level conversations.

Rather, we should anchor on the fact that enterprises exist to create and deliver value to someone appreciative. Doing so demands having knowledge about what to do and how to do it. All of that is built up by saying what we think we know (eg standard work), finding out what we don’t know (jidoka, poke yoke), and improving what we think and what we do (kaizen). Keeping this mantra simple—success depends on relentlessly building capability, and capability is built by the clarity of feedback and the discipline of response—gives us the chance from spreading Lean from being viewed as (sometimes somewhere) useful shop floor tools to a more general pervasive way of thinking about how we conduct our business. 

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11 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani October 11, 2019
3 People AGREE with this comment

For nearly 35 years, Shingijutsu has been teaching three fundamental things: standard work, jidoka/poke yoke, and kaizen. Unfortunately, few influencers followed their lead. But, there is a more fundamental problem: Classical management is built from preconceptions, while TPS is built from perceptions. Preconceptions have long (for centuries) been the guiding force in the institutions of leadership and management. Please see https://bobemiliani.com/understanding-the-institution-of-leadership/. A much deeper understanding of the problem is needed to make the shift (on a larger scale) from leading and managing by preconception to perception.

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Edgar Agustin October 15, 2019

Good article, Bob... SoPK vs SoPP.

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Ignacio Limon October 11, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Beautyfull description of the TPS House Pillars.


Thanks for sharing

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Greg Tutunjian October 11, 2019
8 People AGREE with this comment

I believe the reason Lean (and other proven approaches to change) haven't gained significant adoption and permanance is due to a lack of emphasis on Learning as a fundamental (at all levels) for institutional ____(resilience, growth, market penetration, etc.)____  Leadership (at least in The U.S.) crave turnkey and simplistic (to expedite change) solutions versus thoughtful and continuous investments in our workforce (in addition to listening to them, persistently.)

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A Goldman October 14, 2019

This is a very good way to look at implementing Lean. I think the biggest area of where companies go wrong is not implementing feedback into their systems. It's the best way to effectively monitor, control, and improve the systems. What's one way you found most effective for implementing feedback?

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Paul DeChant, MD, MBA October 20, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Thanks Steven, for this thoughtful post. I like to present Lean to C-suite executives as a management system and culture that empowers and aligns everyone in the organization to rapidly adapt to fix internal problems and respond to external changes.

As such, Lean provides a powerful strategic advantage, supporting Darwin's theory that survival is enhanced by being able to rapidly adapt to environmental change.

The challenge is that Lean demands that leaders engage in personal change, and this is difficult for most people in positions of power.

Of course, such change is not required. As Deming said, "Survival is not mandatory."

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Alex Abraham October 21, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Dr Spear is bang on, but the problem in the workplace is what Prof.Emiliani describes. People want to speak about holistic changes and Toyota and all that, but when it comes to doing them the buck stops at the leader. The leader will only do like he has always done, but he wants the rest of everything to be perfect. If someone spoke all the beautiful Japanese and got hired with a broad smile as the Lean Sensei, it is now upto him to find alternate meanings for the words or risk being fired pretty quickly. It is Dostoevsky's argument that wins the day - bread not the word! What we may never get other than in academic musings is Jesus's will to break the Dostoevsky logjam. Somehow Toyota seems to have succeeded, maybe not perfectly, but pretty well. 

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Ricky Finnigan October 30, 2019

I enjoyed how this article pointed out the many ways that lean can visualize problems within a system. I was fascinated by the heijunka box and value stream map methods to identify the 'best guess' of what needs to be accomplished. You talked about c-level problems. My question would be are c-level problems monitored in the same way an A-level problem would be?

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Ralf Lippold November 08, 2019

Thanks a lot, Steve, for this great article. Despite the massive success over decades that Toyota (and with it generations of the Toyoda family and wise advisors such as Taiichi Ohno or Shigeo Shingo) has show to the world, it seems a thing of impossibility to follow suit. 

Why is that?

A major constraint I see, and have experienced myself while working at a respected premium car manufacturer for some years, is the (often) ego-driven engineering culture. Plants and organizations are led by numbers, and executives and group leaders measured on how the attune to these goals. 

This focus pulls away the attention on the (real) root causes, that are not within the "mistakes" done by another department/worker but deeper inside the culture of the firm. One thing I remember vividly from my days at this plant was when the plant manager had a small meeting with workers (one from our group) from the plant. In preparation for that I mentioned whether to ask him about further application of lean thinking in the scaling process of production. The answer that I got from the person (an engineer - sorry that shall be no engineering bashing, as I come from an engineering background myself), "No, I won't do that. We don't need that. Our processes are perfect. That would be like admitting that we are not good enough!" 

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Owen Berkeley-Hill November 18, 2019
1 Person AGREES with this comment

I’m not sure the Lean community stresses the import of feedback as described in this article, so thank you, Steven.

The importance of feedback was driven home recently by a book (no, nothing to do with Lean) I have just read: The Quick and The Dead -- The Perils of Post-War Flying (Grub Street; 2012). The author, William Waterton, was a test pilot at The Gloster Aircraft Company which produced possibly the most advanced jet fighter after WWII. You would think that the company, its leaders and "boffins" (as he so disparagingly calls them) would take heed of the feedback from it chief test pilot risking his life in their prototypes. From his perspective, those who could make the changes, almost consistently ignored his feedback but never went up in any of the prototypes to understand what he was saying (a good example of not practicing Genchi Genbutsu?).

We give thanks for the example of Toyota, but if it might be a more sobering learning experience to understand just how the UK aircraft industry, so innovative and dominant just after the WWII withered away in no more than a generation.

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Patrick Stoy December 06, 2019

Thank you Steve for such a highly insightful article that clarifies why implementing Lean sometimes works spectacularly well, and sometimes just never takes off in an organization.  Lean is to business performance what Newton's Laws are to physics and engineering: the core fundementals, not a narrow niche.  So, when you think of Lean, think F = ma! 

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