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Art Smalley

Art Smalley: The Lean Elephant

By Art Smalley, - Last updated: lundi, novembre 29, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I think it is best to be honest and admit that most characterizations of lean (or the Toyota Production System) are all lacking in general. In one sense the question posed is simple enough but the answer is not really all that easy. Depending upon what angle or approach you take you can come up with some different points of view on the topic. I’ll summarize a couple and then close with some advice.

If you read any of the old Toyota Production System (TPS) handbooks or books and speeches by Taichi Ohno you’ll quickly find that there historically is no one definition of TPS (aka Lean) that has survived over the years. Everyone has probably run across definitions like “waste elimination”, “reducing the time-line from order to delivery”, “cost reduction principle”, or “Kaizen”, for example. For a long time the “system” really did not have a name. In hindsight I think that was a benefit.

From the period of 1950 to 1973 Toyota worked hard at improving and the efforts were vaguely referred to as the Ohno System in some parts of the company. Other handles such as “supermarket methods”, “kaizen”, “kanban”, and other terms were of course used as well depending upon what topic was being discussed. In the 1950-1960 era most often improvements were chiefly referred to in published documents as 合理化 (Gorika) or rationalization efforts.

In 1973 Toyota finally published the first TPS handbook in Japanese. The title for the handbook was トヨタ式生産システム トヨタ方式.  Here is a snap shot of the cover page of the text.

The rather cumbersome sounding translation of the manual in reality is “Toyota Style Production System / Toyota Methods”. In later yeas of course this become shortened down to just the the Toyota Production System for simplicity. The first handbook did not define TPS in a single sentence. Instead it talked about aspects of the various components that are now so familiar and not worth reviewing. Taiichi Ohno penned the foreword and he emphasized balancing the competing dimensions of quality, quantity, and cost in a way that avoided waste and achieved productivity.

In some ways I think it is an act of folly to depict the Toyota Production System as a single entity. No one in my opinion has been that successful yet. Perhaps it is easier to think of it as multiple systems such as a build in quality system, a productivity system, a scheduling system (JIT), a people development system, a product development system, a supplier development system, etc., etc. The opposite alternative is to be strategically vague and just call it excellence or the Toyota Way. The latter term is what Toyota has employed for the past ten years for greater simplicity.

Whether you prefer to be more like Aristotle and attempt to classify and sub-classify the “elements” of TPS or more like Plato and focus on the essential “forms” is a matter of personal taste and bias in my opinion. It also depends upon where you are in your personal journey and comprehension of the topic. Unfortunately as I have pointed out in speeches over the years the result winds up a bit like the parable of the blind men and the elephant…everyone is positive they know what they are grasping onto but no one can explain the whole properly. (Note: Some of this is also necessary for communication and learning purposes so it is not all bad. I for one will certainly continue to write about elements of the system from time to time.)

The various definitions most often used with TPS/Lean are in the logic category of “necessary” but not “sufficient” in my opinion. Waste elimination is okay but alone it is not enough. For example I can eliminate waste all day long and not improve quality or shorten the time-line for delivery. Similarly I can shorten the time-line from order to delivery in a variety of ways including adding equipment. Of course this runs afoul of the concept of cost reduction, etc. I can practice the scientific method all day long and not solve the right problems or get things done very quickly. TPS / Lean simple has too many facets to apply one simple definition or moniker to the methods involved. Unfortunately this makes communication of the concepts and the execution inherently difficult.

My concluding advice on the topic is to figure out a characterization that is apt for your personal situation or needs and not someone else’s situation. Use what works and then re-orient as needed i.e. basic PDCA thinking. Toyota was not copying any one company or single technique when they built their “system”. Their situation required improvements in profitability, product and manufacturing quality, productivity, human resources, and other dimensions and they set out to develop ways to accomplish those goals. The disciplined act of focusing on a few things that matter and improving is what will help most people and organizations the most. After you have accomplished something substantial then like Toyota did in 1973 you can argue (and continue to argue) about what to call it.

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