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Frontiers and Fundamentals

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Thank you to the over 350 of you who replied to my letter of last month by sending in suggestions for a Learning Session at the 2011 Lean Transformation Summit.

I've spent some time reading your suggestions, in addition to hundreds of emails over the past couple of months, as well as your responses to LEI's annual Community survey. Also, throughout this year in a global spirit of Go See, I have visited the gemba of many of your companies and met hundreds of you at Lean Summits in Australia, China, Poland, Brazil, and South Africa. So, what have I learned anew about the Lean Community?

The Lean Community Today

The positive feedback I have seen has been remarkable. And also remarkable is how much more diverse our Lean Community is than when LEI was founded 13 years ago. After an early focus on process and improvement tools, LEI and many in the Community have increasingly focused on "management." I expect that focus will probably continue.

What I do know is that LEI needs to be able, on the one hand, to engage usefully with cutting-edge thought-leaders, with practitioners who have been at it for a couple of decades, and with pioneers in new applications such as healthcare and basic science. On the other hand, LEI must maintain capability to meet the needs of its traditional Community members.

On the cutting-edge thought-leader front, Doc Hall, for example, is challenging us to extend lean thinking to profound issues such as sustainability and basic quality of life for every global citizen (see his book and website compression.org) through what he calls "Compression." Similarly, H. Thomas Johnson continues to challenge us to question some very basic assumptions of the purpose and function of the modern for-profit corporation. Additionally, many of us are exploring the relation between lean thinking and systems thinking or "complexity" in all its forms and theories.

Yet, at the same time, many of you emphasize that we all go to work, we try to do our jobs with deep engagement, to be effective and efficient. We are front-line, value-creating team members and senior leaders; we may work in a factory, a retail store, an engineering operation, or a government office. System theory sounds interesting, but, really, I have a job to do and pressures to reduce cost while responding to my customer's changing demands. I need practical help. Today.

On the gemba side of lean (is there really another?), I have learned that some of you have come to think that LEI has left you behind. LEI talks more and more about "management." Some among you feel that, while that all sounds good and is probably important to someone, those discussions don't really help you with what's in front of you RIGHT NOW, when your on-time delivery scores continue to decline and that new machining center is down again. You ask, "Can your management theorizing help me with THAT?" (The answer is that, yes, we think there is a connection, but still - point taken.)

In the meantime, another group of you charge that we remain stuck in the tool age. Literally. While forward thinkers are working on progressing the realization of the learning organization, you LEI-ers keep pushing tools like maps and fulfillment algorithms.

So, what is LEI to do? Stick with our traditional factory gemba members and focus on plant-floor improvement methods? Move on to matters of broader, more organizational nature?

The answer is that we need to - and can - do both. Not unlike the old, "Which do you want: cost, delivery, or quality?" the challenge here is not a matter of simply choosing an easy either/or path.

Frontiers and Fundamentals

So, my conclusion is that at this junction of its existence LEI must embrace an approach that I call Frontiers and Fundamentals.

Our challenge cannot really be summed in a question of either this or that. Lean thinking IS systems thinking, at essence a learning process at the individual and organizational levels. But, lean thinking also represents a bias for action, to making things and providing services. Lean thinking and doing is continuous PDCA, an adaptive, evolving, and involving process comprised of people forever improving and learning as they solve real business and organizational problems. It is root-cause problem solving on the one hand while comprehending multiple and mutual causality relationships among factors on the other.

Here are two fairly representative suggestions for Learning Sessions at the Summit next March:

"I would love to see LEI address how both society at large (Bucky Fuller, etc.) and entrepreneurialism can be merged usefully."

"I suggest a review of the tools available. I still think that a good tool helps drive the process."

At LEI, we will stretch ourselves to push the frontiers of lean thinking while embracing the back-to-basics fundamental focus on value creation that gives lean thinking its unique value.

Until next month,

John Shook
Chairman and CEO
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.

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