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Dueling Sensei and the Need for a Standard Operating System

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Recently I witnessed a sight I’ve seen too many times before.  I was visiting a company when a new sensei (Japanese for “teacher”) arrived to advise on the firm’s lean conversion.  The first thing the sensei said to the vice president for operations was, “My method has nothing in common with the method of your previous sensei.  You must now do everything my way.”

The sad part was that the new sensei and the previous sensei both have strong Toyota Production System experience and approach most issues the same way.  But the impression was quickly created that “lean” is not necessarily “lean” and the leaders of the company were thrown into confusion.

It’s hardly surprising that sensei act this way.  Their power is maximized by insisting that only they understand lean thinking.  What I do find surprising is that so many companies still depend on an outside source to define (and redefine) their fundamental operating system and then fail to write it down clearly and simply so that all managers will approach the same problem the same way.

Companies are not unaware of this issue and many in the past have written lengthy manuals – the Ford Production System comes to mind – to set down the company’s methods.  But these were usually so lengthy and complex that few managers ever mastered the details.  In addition, there was too big a gap between the high principles and the essential day-to-day operating methods.  Recently the trend seems to be toward shorter and more precise operating systems – GM’s Global Manufacturing System comes to mind – that managers find easier to follow and which seem to be producing real results.

But most firms still have a long way to go.  To judge how your firm is doing just ask yourself a few simple questions:  “Do we have a standard, lean way to conduct plant operations that everyone understands?”  “Do we have a standard, lean way to interact with our suppliers on an operational level that everyone understands?”  “Do we have a standard, lean way to interact with our customers on an operational level that everyone understands?”  And most important, “Would a new manager just arriving at a facility or in a new area of responsibility immediately know what to do, as prescribed by our operating system, and do it the standard way?”

Please note that this is not a recipe for rigid top-down rules, developed by a staff group and unrelated to actual conditions.  Rather, it is a prescription for a top-down, bottom-up process — led by a company’s senior operations mangers — to precisely define a company’s operating system, to get agreement from everyone that it is currently the best known way to conduct operations, and then to teach it to every manager.

Of course, it is then important to continuously conduct experiments – that’s what kaizen is – to search for better operating methods and to incorporate new methods in the standard system once they are proved superior.  This is where an outside sensei is often most helpful, to spur thinking about better methods.

Here’s a final thought:  Because most companies are steadily contracting their supply bases, even as they outsource more, and are depending on a smaller number of suppliers who are also supplying their competitors, there will be steady convergence across industry on a standard lean operating system used by everyone.  (Otherwise every supplier will need to deal with the chaos of multiple operating systems at customers.)  This is a real issue for companies currently having the best operating system – for some reason Toyota comes to mind!  But it’s good for society, so let’s hope we can all move rapidly down this path.  We at LEI are doing everything we can to help by writing down a set of simple methods in our workbooks that will eventually sum to a complete lean operating system.

Best regards,

Jim Womack
President and Founder
Lean Enterprise Institute

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