Lean manufacturing owes its success to its effectiveness in practice. This system of learning has come from experience, not theory. It emerged as a series of countermeasures designed to tackle immediate problems, and over time became codified, and recognized (this history is shared in the wonderful book The Birth of Lean) as a system. In this sense, it is a radical alternative to dominant “rational” management frameworks. The radical nature springs from a tacit assumption about the systems being addressed; they are deemed to be complex whether explicit or not. This is the key to their appeal, because virtually every system involving human actors is, per se, complex.
Complex stands over and against the dominant, modern worldview of systems as deterministic. Machine-like system, in this sense, can be described analytically and, consequently, can be managed by applying the rules. Some machines are very complicated and not completely known entities so that the rules leave some uncertainty in place. Complex systems are fundamentally or paradigmatically different. They cannot be described by analytic rules. Their future behaviors cannot be described within some degree of certainty. Unknown, unpredictable events occur at unforeseen moments. They can jump from one seemingly stable regime into another as the US financial system did in 2007-8. They cannot be known in the same way as machines.
But they can be understood such that agents can interact with them in order to keep them running within some distance from their optimum operating point. The key to Lean is that it creates understanding, not knowledge. One difficulty in successful implementation of lean systems is that managers conflate these two important concepts. Understanding and knowing exist within two distinctive philosophic domains, pragmatism and positivism, respectively. The methods to be applied in either one do not work in the other. Positivism only works in systems that can be described analytically, that is, as some form of formula or logical expression. Problems that arise are invariably handed to experts of one sort or another, that is, to people who presumably hold the knowledge required to solve the problems.
Problems in complex systems demand a radically different framework. Whereas positivism requires one to develop theories (knowledge) about the system at hand by standing outside of it and observing objectively, pragmatism generates understanding by living within the systems. By careful observation over time, with perhaps, a little measured perturbation now and then, observers can begin to develop a holistic sense of what causes the kind of deviations from the desired state, and thus, have non-random, ways to deal with those deviations when they inevitably occur.
The key players are those with the closest most intimate experience with the particular system of interest. They are polar opposites to experts who arrive on the scene with acontextual, abstract knowledge that only, by chance, fits the unique concrete nature of each and every complex system. No external hierarchy determines who should comprise such a group of observers/actors. Familiarity and concern about the system are the only criteria.
John Dewey, the great American philosopher of pragmatism, saw this to be a key feature of a sound political system that could deliver the values foremost in our Nation. The complexity of the society would be better governed by democratically derived solutions than by expertise. The involvement of those within the teams of inquirers/solvers is additionally empowering as the quality circles in the TPS has shown.
The last “secret” of Lean is that the most important outcomes from complex systems are frequently qualities like resilience; in the case of TPS, it is quality, itself. They emerge only when the whole system is functioning within some limited operating range. Merely tinkering with the system, that is, by applying analytically-based remedies cannot produce them. These qualities over emerge over time through understanding and careful interventions. Quality is not some engineer’s metric. Once again, TPS carefully involved its customers in its quality-producing program. Circling back, the key to success of Lean is the recognition of its radicality. It is not just some very clever method; it lives in a different belief system – a different paradigm – and managers that cannot understand this may have short-term success, but, sooner or later the old, entrenched beliefs will start showing up as new persistent problems.