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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: Dispel the myth of “lean will not work here”

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Friday, July 8, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

In our newest book,  The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement, the bulk are seven case studies of organizations very different from auto–health care, iron ore mining, heavy machinery, nuclear submarine overhaul and repair,  product development, nuclear fuel, and more.  Each tells the story from the sensei perspective of the process they went through to help the organization understand lean and develop the skills to make significant improvement.  Success ranged from a model line to a model mine to a model department.  These were all large organizations and none so far led to a transformed total organization on the way toward a culture of continuous improvement.  The results were stunning, but localized.  So in that sense they were all extremely difficult.

The purpose of the broad range of cases and diversity was to answer the nagging (and to us in the field annoying) assumption that “we are unique and different and lean will not work here.”  I have faced that in every industry I have worked in, even at Ford years ago.  After all Ford is not Japanese, they do not lock in schedules for long periods like Toyota used to in America, they have an external board of directors looking over their shoulders, etc.

In every case we have worked with we were able to dispel the myth that “lean will not work here,” by helping them do it and show lean was working there.  That was the only form of persuasion possible.  Talk, talk, talk would never do it.  My logic against your belief system does not have a chance of winning.

I think the reason that this kind of issue comes up is that in the initial stages of a company trying to understand lean they only see the technical processes they have and the technical solutions that they hear Toyota uses and they do not see a good fit.  How can I create a fast moving assembly line?  How can I have a timed kanban route when I have a bunch of engineers sitting in front of CAD terminals?  How can I standardize work that is changing every day?

I had an interesting talk with Steve Hoeft about lean healthcare who insisted that healthcare is different and you have to work in it for at least 3 years and drench yourself in the culture, and particularly the lingo, to be accepted as someone who is credible.  I asked again what is really different about the work itself.  He immediately answered “variability.”  That was a great answer!   From a technical point of view it will always be easier to envision the future state and put in all the bells and whistles of TPS in processes that are stable and similar.  When you have a process like product development where you can define a launch date and key milestones and everyone is working on different things to meet those it is very difficult to define a takt.  Any use of takt is mostly as a metaphor.  If you think more deeply you can define a cadence, which acts like a takt.  The cadence can be through design reviews, weekly obeya cross-functional meetings, daily huddles.  At the end most of what you do at a 30,000 foot view looks like TPS, e.g., using some sort of andon system and using checklists to get closer to error proofing.  But they are metaphors.

Once we demonstrate that lean can and does work in a given environment, then comes the “most difficult” part.  That is getting the organization to a place where the leaders embrace, preach and teach lean and it is getting spread as part of the culture throughout the organization.  At this point all the barriers become social and political.  Shifting people and leaders are a major source of variability and a barrier.  Senior leaders who think short term and want a clear cost reduction from every change made is another.  A very profitable organization with no strong business need at the moment can be deadly.

In short, every organization is operating in a different environment with different business demands and different technical processes, particularly in terms of variability.  So every organization is indeed unique and “different.”  The thinking process of lean which focuses on problem solving to move toward a clear vision through a series of targets is generic.  But the real variability that ultimately matters, and what makes change so difficult, is the people at all levels, but particularly starting with the senior leaders.  That also is generic and is more related to organizational culture, politics, and the business environment than anything about any technical processes.

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