Home > Knowledge Center> John Shook's eLetters> Forward to Fundamentals

Forward to Fundamentals

Permalink   |   4 Comments   |   Post a Comment   |  

I wrote the past four columns while on a whirlwind tour of healthcare facilities in Japan, Australia, and Vietnam, a long trip that finally concludes today. I may write specifically about those experiences in future columns, assuming I can get my thoughts straight.

But for now, those visits were good opportunities to stretch my thinking into areas that are relatively new to me while at the same time exploring lean fundamentals through the series of columns exploring The Birth of Lean. Now it’s time to take that exploration a step further.

I hope you have seen the notices from LEI about Thursday’s webinar with Jim Womack and me. The theme is “Forward to Fundamentals.”

As I have stated previously in this column and elsewhere (a broken record lately), in recent years the focus of debate around lean transformations has evolved, understandably, from tools and practices toward more managerial and strategic matters. I was one of those who encouraged that shift. There had long been a serious lack of understanding of the thinking behind lean tools, practices, and systems and that lack of understanding led to mismanagement, organizational misalignment, and the ultimate failure of many lean transformations. So, the discussion of lean management, strategy, and culture is surely a good thing. Surely.

However, nowadays I am most alarmed by the lack of implementation of the fundamentals, almost everywhere I go. Sometimes I feel that the only thing that has improved is the ability of senior managers to talk a good lean game. More and more executives have learned to debate finer and higher level lean concepts. Yet when you go to their gembas – nothing.

Hence, my focus in recent columns on lean basics – including my recent rant about overproduction being forgotten – and my involvement in the creation of LEI’s two newest publications, The Birth of Lean and Kaizen Express. You know about The Birth of Lean by now. Kaizen Express takes a very, very different tack. A throwback to an earlier era of lean discovery.

Thanks to lead author Toshiko Narusawa for allowing me to partner with her producing a volume that tries to get closer to the original intent of the fundamental lean tools and practices. Kaizen Express tries to keep things as simple as possible (but no simpler!) and focus on what we should do to improve performance, to better serve the customer, to better ensure profitability – in any economic environment (Ohno’s original objective!).

Over the years, possibly no one has more than me advocated the position that, while TPS or lean was born in Japan, there is nothing about it that is “Japanese” in the sense that it can be adopted anywhere, in any country. I believe that to be true. There are two primary pieces of evidence for this position: (1) TPS is no more common in Japan than in other countries, and (2) there are examples of successful TPS implementation outside Japan.

However, the fact that TPS isn’t inherently Japanese in the sense that a company must be Japanese to adopt it is not to say that there is nothing that is Japanese about it.

Kaizen Express takes an approach to TPS and Kaizen that is somewhat “Japanese.” It is extremely visual, with many graphics on every page. It is action oriented – “here is what you can do,” something very practical that you can try.” And it represents a Japanese or perhaps East Asian approach that goes from the particular to the general. In contrast with a Western approach that typically goes from the general (general principles, philosophy) to the particular. Another way to think of the Kaizen Express approach is “entering through form” or pattern. This is the way lean is typically introduced in Japan. Similar to learning a martial art, through practicing the Kaizen routines, employing the practices and tools, you gradually come to learn the patterns and adopt the habits and instincts of lean thinking.

There are plusses and minuses of both approaches and I’m not advocating one over the other. I have long been hopeful that a third, or “best of both worlds” approach, will eventually emerge.

Hope you can join Thursday’s webinar with Jim (and apologies to friends in Australasian, East Asian, and other inconvenienced time zones – please view the archived webinar when you can!).


John Shook
Senior Advisor
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.

4 Comments | Post a Comment
Andrea April 24, 2009
John has written several great posts about the birth of lean, and Lean Fundamentals. One thing that is missing, is that Toyota was, in several ways, really really poor and small. In its book 50 years in motion Eiji Toyoda recalls about not having any money during its first trip in the USA. They wanted to build great cars but couldn't afford any money, so they had to spare about everything as a matter of survival. They went so for 20-25 years before becoming bigger, and this aspect became a way of life: you must use every resource with the greatest respect and not waste it in useless ways. In the current days this is still a great lesson.
John Bushling April 26, 2009
I have been on the Lean journey for over ten years and have observed the pattern John is referring to across multiple businesses. Management/leadership has typically been unprepared but wanted to apply the Lean tools. The tools are immediately effective but with no plan, strategy or thinking to bring follow through. Leadership doesn't understand why the 'numbers' (metrics) aren't sustained. Next step: Leadership takes a crash course in Lean understanding, learns more buzzwords but have no practical experience. This leads to a Lean tools 'back to basics' but Leadership stays on the sidelines. And so the cycle continues. A very slow, predictable, evolutionary process. How to get the whole team on board from the start???
Anonymous April 27, 2009
How true. I live in a small corner of the U.S. and have already worked at 2 organizations with 2 failed lean attempts within just a few miles of each other. The quick fix is the American Way. Just give me what I need, let me reap the benefits with minimal investment and let me on my merry way. No wonder the people at Toyota aren't afraid to let outsiders see their facilities. They know we lack the discipline to be a threat.
Andy Sattlberger May 1, 2009
The lack of fundamentals is often the most difficult obstacle to overcome. Why? Because managers tell me "Yeah, I know that." However, even so, they do not implement it consistently.
My solution to this dilemma is to compare the practice of lean with musicians´ practice. They are probably the most fanatic about "fundamentals". Like the famous cellist Pablo Casals, when he was 93 of age he was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, Casals replied "I'm beginning to notice some improvement."
Other John Shook Related Content