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Mike Rother

Mike Rother: The Evolution of Lean

By Mike Rother, - Last updated: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Question: What would be our best success stories to illustrate what lean is all about?

You’re asking that question at a moment when the lean community itself is trying to answer it. Our thinking about lean, and our definition of it, are evolving.

However, trying to answer the question by looking at success stories is too surface-level. Besides, we learn from mistakes, not from successes. To gain a better understanding of what Toyota has been doing to generate its successes, try to discern the intentions behind Toyota’s visible practices and to reflect on where our own efforts have fallen short. Not in a criticizing-ourselves mode, but in a learning mode.

A. Learning to ask a different question

With regard to Lean, we’ve typically asked ourselves: “What can we do to improve?” This question leads us to attacking all sorts of waste in too much of a scattershot approach. We may celebrate successes in doing that, but such a broad-brush approach is wasteful of our time because it may not move the organization forward. The Lean revolution means kaizening everywhere, but not everything.

Toyota asks itself a different question: “What do we need to do to improve?” Answering that question requires establishing a target condition before you start improving, and then focusing on those things that move the work process from its current condition to the defined next target condition.

B. Learning to PDCA

In addition to the specific Lean practices, a lot of Lean is about mobilizing human ingenuity. Just implementing the items on an action-item list – a common practice – is a terrible way of doing that. (I’ve made many of those lists myself. Hmm.) Once you have a process target condition, the team should work iteratively toward it and learn.

The well-known lean tools, practices, concepts and principles are highly useful, but at Toyota they operate within the context of how Toyota tackles virtually any undertaking. Specifically, Toyota has its members practice and learn a systematic, iterative routine – a kata – for working toward desired new conditions and levels of performance despite obstacles. When the lean tools, practices, concepts and principles are applied outside that context they tend to be reduced to techniques for short-term cost cutting.

Reflection

If you experiment with Lean and reflect, you eventually come to conclusions like these:

(1) In addition to its tools and principles, lean also entails a routine for achieving challenging objectives with groups of people. PDCA is at the core of that routine.

(2) We can learn to enjoy challenges, even tough ones, if we master an effective way for meeting them.

(3) Benchmarking looks at solutions, not the skills behind the solution. Better to stay home and ask:

(4) Improvement efforts should occur daily and be coached by line managers, rather than just as periodic events led by staff. Toyota got that right.

For more on this topic check out this SlideShare:

The Evolution of Lean

Mike


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