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The Joys of a Brownfield

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Jim Womack's last solo e-letter, sent to you in August, was titled "The Joys of a Greenfield," and described the excitement of applying lean thinking to new ventures. As you know from our joint e-letter last month, Jim has transitioned to a new role, and I have taken his position at LEI.

LEI is no Greenfield. In fact it is what we call a brownfield - an existing operation as opposed to a new "green" one. And while conventional wisdom holds that it is easier to actualize lean ideals in a Greenfield than in a brownfield, I have not found that to necessarily be the case. As a matter of fact, I have come to prefer the challenges and joys of working in a brownfield.

This preference has grown out of years of practice, beginning with my first deep lean experience at the famously successful brownfield turnaround that was the Toyota-GM joint venture known as NUMMI. Lean experience teaches us to enjoy and make the most of going to see. Go to the gemba, go there a lot, and learn to look for the things that tell you the truth about what is going on, the real problems faced by workers, the real wants and needs of the customer. These things are right in front of you in a brownfield situation.

Yet in a Greenfield situation your initial gemba may consist of only attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, mindsets. And these are much harder to change than any "thing" you find at the physical gemba of a brownfield. At one large Greenfield project in which I was heavily involved, at one point the project leader became exasperated, threw up his hands and declared that there were "too many smart people around here." Everyone involved had his or her ideas of what was to be done. And all the ideas made perfect sense to the individuals who held them. But without a real-live gemba to go look at and understand together, these smart people were spending many long hours debating points and feeling certain about being correct. Yet progress was slow in coming.

This is not to say that working in a Greenfield can't be satisfying - as long as there is a well-defined ideal state combined with strong leadership to make it work.

Nonetheless, give me a brownfield with a gemba that I can go touch and feel. Which brings me to my latest brownfield ... LEI.

LEI and Me
What does it mean to become the CEO of LEI? I don't fully know yet. On September 27, Jim and I met with LEI's Board of Directors (yes, LEI has a Board of Directors) and the members approved the passing of the baton. Now, I can't replace Jim - impossible for anyone to do that. More importantly, though, I am faced with the questions of, what is LEI, anyway, and what is the need for it?

Let me step back further first, though, and ask, who am I? Let me share something about my background. Whenever I lead a workshop, I try to inform the audience of my biases, so my fellow learners will be well-positioned to understand, analyze, interpret what I am saying and doing.

I learned most of what I know about our shared interest - "lean" - at Toyota. So I tell a lot of Toyota stories, and make many Toyota references. This does that mean that I think Toyota is perfect. The point is not Toyota. Never was. Still, in my case, Toyota is my natural frame of reference.

I left Toyota in 1994 and joined the University of Michigan half-time with the dream of "bringing lean" to education. I needed to put some distance between myself and my Toyota experience to better understand it. I had experienced a LOT during my ten and a half years with Toyota and knew what I had learned could be valuable to many people, but only if I could first understand it better myself.

In addition to my university work, I began to consult. I have worked with many organizations, large and small, in numerous industries around the world. This tempered my Toyota experience with ample real-world examples of companies that were not making cars, were not manufacturing - were not Toyota.

Those consulting days are now behind me. LEI is a not-for-profit research and education institute. We work with companies from a co-learning perspective, not as traditional consultants.

LEI and You - What Is LEI?
Since its founding in 1997, LEI has ...

  • Sent 100 e-letters from Jim Womack to over 150,000 subscribers.
  • Registered over 200,000 Lean Thinkers to its online Lean Community.
  • Trained almost 20,000 people at public workshops.
  • Delivered onsite training to over 2,000 people at over 100 companies.
  • Collaborated with over 50 independent faculty members.
  • Partnered with 15 companies to learn through experiments and shared experience.
  • Produced 20 publications and sold over 600,000 books and training aids.
  • Founded the Lean Education Academic Network.
  • Founded the Healthcare Value Leaders Network.
  • Formed the Lean Global Network, a network of 17 not-for-profit institutes on six continents.
  • And much more.

But ... Motion (does not) = work!
But, lean thinking dictates that we never confuse motion with work, action with Value creation. What does all that activity of the past 13 years tell us? Where does this leave us right now?

I have my own thoughts, which I will share as time goes by. But rather than looking in the mirror and talking to myself, my first priority will be to re-grasp the situation of the Community. This does not mean simply asking what people want and then giving it to them. To grasp the situation means determining need. There's an important distinction to be made between want and need.

Begin from Need
My favorite of all of Taiichi Ohno's words is, "Begin from need." What does the customer (the organization, the worker, the gemba) need right now? "Begin from need" is, of course, just another way of articulating the principle of PDCA, or, more specifically CA-PDCA. Always begin by grasping the situation, and avoid jumping to conclusions. Avoid even jumping to root cause. Ask what before why. Turn every issue into a problem that you can challenge. (Focusing on needs is another reason I enjoy brownfield work: customer and employee needs are right there in front of you! Note, by the way, that most of LEI's most successful products, such as Learning to See and Managing to Learn, were driven not by Community demand but assessment of Community need.)

My favorite of Deming's many words of wisdom is, "Survival is optional." Truer words were never spoken. And, for any organization, once we've decided to choose the survival option, our next step is to define a market need or want. From there we can define gaps to understand, alternatives to explore, outcomes to attain, and challenges to challenge.

LEI's basic challenge remains how to best fulfill its mission of promoting the application of lean thinking in every human endeavor. We believe these ideas, this way of thinking, of doing, or working has tremendous power to improve human organizations and lives.

But, it is actually okay for LEI to not survive. If we aren't fulfilling our purpose of supporting our Community members' needs to survive, to learn, to thrive, then LEI should disappear. I am not willing to give up easily, though; I think there is a vital role for LEI to play in the future. Together with you, our Community members, we will determine what that role is and how best to fulfill it. Our job will be to challenge ourselves to do our best. Your job will be to judge how well we are doing, while you challenge yourselves, your organizations, and your situations to do your best as well.


Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.

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