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Back to Basics at the Lean Transformation Summit

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It was good to see the 300 or so of you who attended the 3rd Lean Transformation Summit last week in Atlanta. Conferences can be a good time to learn and network, also to take the pulse of the community.

Back to Basics

A major theme of the conference and subject of much discussion was "Back to the Basics," a favorite theme of this Column as well.

If the basics are something to go back to, what does a quick review of lean history tell us? Dr. Womack’s familiar history lesson goes like this:

1935 – 1975 Invention/Innovation
1975 – 1990 Age of Global Discovery
1990 – 2006 Tool Age
2006 – ?? Age of Management

Those beginning and ending years are all approximates, of course. 1935 to 1975 refers to the period Toyota was researching and building cars while concurrently learning and building its operating systems. (And, of course, there is a “prehistoric era” during which many innovations such as those of Henry Ford led up to Toyota’s development of its production and management systems.)

1975 to 1990 refers to the period the world outside Toyota began to discover what the company had been doing, beginning with the first oil shock of 1973 and the initial visits of foreign emissaries to Toyota City in the late 70s and early 80s. 1990 to 2006 refers to the era when everyone, every company was copying Toyota’s tools and techniques, resulting in a fashion boom of "Your Company's Production System".

So now we are – perhaps - entering the "Age of Management." It is certainly clear that that general dialogue and concern in recent years has turned toward more managerial and cultural matters. And there now seems to be widespread acceptance (on the surface anyway) of the wonderfully insightful explanation by Toyota’s Teruyuki Minoura that the T of TPS should refer to "Thinking." It's a "thinking" production system in which all members are fully engaged with their minds as well as their hands. I myself have long pointed out the lack of understanding of those matters as a major problem for many if not most if not all companies. Nowadays, no one even wants to talk about the tools anymore.

Uncommon Sense

>But, something is starting to feel a bit out of whack again. So let's go back and examine some basic assumptions.

Common sense (basic assumptions) then. In the tool age, the belief was that if you use these tools, you too can be like Toyota. Buy the shoes and be like Mike.

Common sense (basic assumptions) now. Copying tools is wrong. Focusing on tools is wrong. Copying anything is wrong and you certainly can’t copy management, culture, and thinking. You have to adapt to your own circumstance, solve your own problems, develop your own "culture".

Sounds good, right? But, there could be a problem. Consider this quote:

"Common sense is always wrong."

And consider the source. It was a frequent expression of Taiichi Ohno. Hmm, maybe it"s worth going back and questioning our basic assumptions, even now.

As we turn attention to management, strategy, people, culture, and move from the "tool age" to the "management age," it's possible to forget the genius inside the highly-developed lean "tools." Properly developed and implemented, they embody the thinking and diligent practice that can lead to the deeper learning and change in thinking. Through proper, thoughtful implementation, repeated practice of the lean basics can bring insights.

Even more than the "mechanical" or tangible benefits they bring, they are intended to be learning and improvement structures, designed to make it:

  • easy to see problems.
  • easy to improve.
  • easy to learn from.

Here’s an interesting question: What is calculus? Is it a solution? Or a means to derive solutions?

So here's the thought to challenge our current day lean common sense: we've got the balance wrong again. If we let the pendulum swing too far over in the tool direction during the Tool Age, we may be letting it swing too far in the other direction today.

The Birth of Lean

I had the chance to challenge my own basic thinking in spades recently, by helping with the translation of a new LEI publication, released at the Summit last week, The Birth of Lean. I’m sure many of you are well aware of the work of Takahiro Fujimoto (see especially The Evolution of a Production System at Toyota). Taka teamed with another professor, Koichi Shimokawa, to interview and otherwise put into print the words of six of the most influential people in the development of Toyota’s system in the post-World War II period. Translator Brian Miller (thanks for letting me help, Brian) worked hard to make the words of the old guys really come to life – it's as if they are speaking to you.

The timing is amazing. The words of these key persons in the development of TPS, spoken during an earlier era of crisis for Toyota in Japan's war-torn economy, seem to fit today's economic crisis with little need for updating. Consider these words of Ohno:

"An increase in production volume shouldn’t necessarily mean a decline in unit costs any more than a decline in volume should mean an increase in unit costs. Those sorts of things happen as the result of arranging things poorly." (Birth, p. 53.)

In other writings, Ohno said he was trying to create a system to enable "success in a down market," noting that "it's easy to make money when everyone is making money. The key is to be able to make money when times are bad."

Sounds like he was talking about the current situation of too much and wrong capacity everywhere. Sounds like he was talking about today.

More next week,

John Shook
Senior Advisor
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Robert March 12, 2009
"What is calculus? Is it a solution? Or a means to derive solutions?"

None of the above. It is a language. A means to describe the world with greater clarity than natural language provides. I'll leave the parallels with lean tools up to others.

Anthony March 16, 2009
"Common sense is always wrong"

Interesting observation since it seems that many of the tools of TPS are deceptively simple. On a fundamental level, they seem to be in place to combat human nature. For example, the desire to hurry to a solution, implement it and move on to the next fire drill.

I am very interested in this article because it covers an area where there is still much learning to be done, namely successfully implementing TPS into our own organizations. It seems in Liker's book, The Toyota Way, there is a reoccurring theme that you can not simply copy the TPS. That you must figure out how to apply it to your company, your situation. What are your thoughts on maintaining the proper balance of copying TPS versus adapting to your own circumstances?
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