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A Fundamental Question

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As I continue to visit your gemba and receive emails (over 500 and counting since I started in September), I am asked many questions. And I ask many in return. I respond to most questions with a question for two reasons: because that's the way I was taught, and because I have found it to be an effective way to facilitate learning.

One of the most frequent questions that have been asked in the past month concerns the meaning of our new theme of "Frontiers and Fundamentals." Many of you have asked me to elaborate, or have offered your own thoughts on what this means.

In terms of frontiers, I think most of us see the need to move forward by applying established known lean practices to fields such as healthcare, government, education, or science. But frontiers also means developing new lean practices, often through expansion of lean thinking into realms of activity that have heretofore managed to distance themselves from this approach, such as sales, marketing, strategy, R&D, HR, and finance.

But what about the "fundamentals"? There is still a great deal of work to do in this regard. In my view, the technical side of many lean transformations is still very weak. Over the past 20 years, many companies have given lean production a try. Some tried lean as a "Program-of-the-Month," in which they saw limited or no gains and then moved on, concluding from their experience that lean was simply a passing fad.

Others gave lean a more faithful effort. But many of them moved on as well, in this case after some initial success, perhaps thinking (with apologies to Peggy Lee), "so that's all there is?" After a relatively brief effort they declared themselves lean masters and looked for the next new thing. I think this phenomenon is actually the far more difficult and prevalent problem. It is also more insidious and, once it sets in, more difficult to overcome. I would rather deal with the naysayer who proclaims "lean doesn't work" than the dismissive "lean was good but we already moved on to xyz."

Today it is common to hear, "the technical aspects of lean are easy, it's the social side that is hard." It may be true that the social side is harder. And it may be true that most aspects of the technical side are essentially "simple." But simple doesn't mean easy. I have observed countless organizations that tried to "move on" beyond the tools but were actually by-passing the tools instead. They were dismissing the technical skills as a kind of commodity, when in fact the techniques and tools of lean (the process side of lean as a social-technical system) are anything but easy to master. They are simple, but deceptively so: simple on the surface but complex underneath.

Many try to move on from the perceived over-focus (another "over"-type of waste?) on tools, but you can't "move on" unless you've actually done the work to understand and use the tools to begin with.

For example, when's the last time you saw a good kanban system in place? Remember, a kanban system isn't just a matter of the customer getting what is wanted when wanted. A kanban is a real kanban (i.e. functioning properly) when it serves to link the consuming process to the producing process (not just to the "supermarket") so the producer is producing what the consumer needs.

I see a lot of two-bin replenishment attempts that look good at the consuming end of the value stream, but when you walk back to the producing process you see how replenishment becomes convoluted -- over-ridden by an IT system or a human, and often both. Take a fresh look for yourself -- if you don't observe your pull system becoming corrupted immediately upstream, just continue to observe another link or two in the chain and I'll wager you'll find what I usually do.

Sometimes we like to be clever and "out-smart" ourselves by bypassing simple card systems and go straight to "e-Kanban." I understand the logic but as a trend it scares me. If you take the time to look closely, most "e-Kanban" systems are simply re-labeled IT-based (MRP) push systems. These systems are not kanban. It's the clear and accurate feedback signals that connect consumer and producer that make kanban, kanban.

And, in the end, the most powerful characteristic of an effective kanban system is its element of people involvement. Like all good lean processes, kanban pushes responsibility down to the level where the work takes place, engaging workers, supervisors, and support staff in operating and continually improving the system in which they do their work, solve problems, and exercise ownership.

I know that many of you do have effective kanban systems in place. And that you have them because you went through the learning required to put them in place. And that you probably see what I see, which is many others who only go through the motions, and as soon as things go wrong, they go right back to previous practice or hire the consultant who is selling something "better than kanban." I am just using kanban here as one example -- the same could be said of any of the fundamental lean practices, such as pokayoke to build in quality or standardized work.

Don't get me wrong. For a long time I have encouraged the shift from tools toward managerial and strategic concerns. There had been a serious lack of understanding of the thinking behind lean tools, practices, and systems for a long time. This 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.

But now I am alarmed by a widespread lack of implementation and appreciation of lean fundamentals. Sometimes it seems like the skill that has shown the most improvement is the ability of executives to talk a good lean game. Too many managers have learned to debate higher level lean concepts, yet when you go to their gemba evidence of application of fundamental principles is nowhere to be found.

Skills build upon other skills. You can't run until you can walk, can't dunk a basketball until you can jump. It is hard to move beyond the basic practices, as many companies now profess to desire, when you haven't learned them to begin with.

So, back to the question of why are fundamentals still important today: as we embark to explore new frontiers of lean thinking and practice, does your organization -- do you -- have the fundamental skills in place to establish the foundation for success?


John Shook
Chairman and CEO
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.

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