30 Years of Lean, 30 Years of Roadblocks

July 2024 will mark the 30th year that I have been engaged with the Toyota production system and Lean. It started with my participation in genba kaizen led by Shingijutsu kaizen consultants. From there it led to the practice of TPS and the Toyota Way (TPS/TW). It also led to the exploration of Lean production in terms of its similarities and difference to TPS and the Toyota Way.

I have learned a lot over the decades in my roles as manufacturing manager, supply chain manager, executive trainer and coach, as professor teaching working professionals, and researcher and author, all of which centered on learning and teaching progressive management. Besides the usual technical and human aspects of TPS/TW and Lean, I have learned more important things that I want to share with you.

In all of the jobs listed above, I have made conscious efforts to teach and train other people. In doing so I have observed how they react and retain the information (or not) and use it in practice (or not). In almost every case it is not what I had hoped would happen. I have learned that:

  • Most people learn what they want to learn, not what they should learn or need to learn.
  • What people learn about process improvement tends to follow fads. Fad or not, what most people learn about process improvement tends to be filled with mistakes and misinformation.
  • Most people do what they want to do. If they cannot do that, they do what the boss wants them to do. The pendulum swings wildly from freedom to compliance.
  • Salaried and hourly employees are often unable to do what they were trained to do pertaining to process improvement because their bosses will not allow it in whole or part.
  • Both teamwork and creativity run at levels far below what most people are capable of.
  • Most people are unwilling to close the gap between what they hope for and the reality of the difficult problems that they face. Ignorance truly is bliss.
  • Leaders, especially presidents and CEOs, consider any advice or direction that comes from lower status people to be, at best, recommendations (typically rejected), and, at worst, insults.
  • Whatever has the lowest level of uncertainty has the highest probability of being put into practice (Example: 5S is put into practice, but Just-in-time is not).
  • Metaphysical concerns overwhelm material concerns.
  • Confidence overwhelms skepticism.
  • And finally, the conduct of business is rife with archaic preconceptions, obsolete traditions, primitive biases, valorized political ideology, often stunningly illogical thinking, plain old stupidity, and frequent leadership turnover which results in the continuation or periodic renewal of these anachronisms.

These eleven items are the same as that found in all previous efforts to advance progressive management. They should be recognized as structural problems (roadblocks) that must be addressed, not ignored as they have long been. These are difficult, but not impossible problems to overcome.

Additionally, Lean promoters and practitioners typically communicate with leaders who have long been educated and trained on-the-job in classical management. Status is very important to leaders’ existence in that form of management practice. Given that most Lean promoters and practitioners are lower in status, their advocacy for Lean tends to be ignored. Most leaders do not listen. But those same leaders talk endlessly about the need for continuous improvement, lifelong learning, cost reduction, commitment, competitiveness, market share, profits, execution, etc.

Talk Listen 1

When we find the elusive “Lean leader,” we also find that the listening and talking curves are reversed, the inflection point moves to the lower left, and status is of minimal importance. What is most important is performing better compared to other companies via teamwork, creativity, and skilled problem-solving.

The population of large companies fit a normal distribution as shown in the image below. There are failing companies on the far left, excellent companies on the far right, and a large middle where companies and their leadership meet the standard (MTS). The leaders of MTS companies want to avoid failing and do not see much need to be excellent. They are good enough. Meeting the standard is mediocracy, though it is often misleadingly hyped as excellence.

Good Enough 1

For most CEOs, the excellent companies are outliers that can easily be ignored. The losers too can be ignored, but could be given some attention as takeover targets. The position to be in that is held in highest regard by the greatest number of CEOs, their peers, and related influential people is in the middle of the normal distribution — despite all their chatter about excellence (which is directed more towards the utilitarian benefit of creating the illusion of excellence). In that position, you do what everyone else does because that is what is most widely accepted.

When a failing company hires a new CEO, their goal will be to meet the standard. That is good enough. When an exemplary company hires a new CEO, likely one deeply versed in classical management, all the unusual and difficult stuff that made the company excellent will likely disappear, thus returning the company to one that meets the standard. That, again, is good enough.

Unfortunately, all Lean community leaders and most Lean professionals do not want to understand the situation as I have described (click here for more detail). The question is, why?

Social media provides a window into the emotional connection that people have with Lean management, as well as other methods and tools whose purpose is to improve the practice of leadership and management. For Lean, the emotional connection is so strong that disconfirming evidence is ignored. Acknowledging reality is just too bleak a prospect, and so it is avoided.

But what is remarkable is how fast people can make emotional connections to things. Many years ago my family visited The Netherlands. We had an overnight flight, checked in to the hotel early, took a nap, had lunch, and then returned to the hotel room. Later that afternoon we turned on the television and watched the country’s football team, Oranje. Almost immediately we — me, my wife, and young son and daughter — were rooting for their success and were disappointed when they got scored against. We formed an emotional connection to Oranje in less than 30 minutes.

The emotional connection that people make to Lean may not be as fast, but it is strong and durable, much like the connection people make to sports teams, a brand of pick-up truck, a type of art, a decor, a place, or a cause. Continuing with the sports metaphor, die-hard fans stay positive despite stinging losses and many losing seasons. Despite their long suffering, they focus on the wins and rejoice when their team has a winning season. And they buy lots of their favorite sports team’s gear — jerseys, shirts, hats, jackets, etc. — to show their commitment to the team and unyielding support.

Lean people are a lot like that. They are die-hard fans who stay positive despite a lot of failure and very slow progress. They focus mainly on a few past wins and rejoice when a new winner energes. And they buy lots of Lean gear — books, training courses, conference tickets, etc. — to show their commitment to Lean and unyielding support for a perennial loser. To a significant extent, their emotional connection to Lean makes them expert at denying reality and placing their faith in better outcomes brought about by unknown metaphysical forces. Lean is the cause that they fight for, mostly unsuccessfully.

I have been speaking for many years about the roadblocks described in this post for the purpose of encouraging Lean community leaders and others to see reality and rethink their approaches to advancing Lean that have been largely unchanged for the last 36 years. However, Lean world has normalized failure and in doing so has lost sight of its goal. It is clear that there is no interested in improving. The emotional connection to Lean is so strong that being on the Lean team matters more than winning. Or, maybe they just don’t care. Or, maybe seeing reality is bad for the business of Lean. Whatever the case may be, it looks like there has to be a lot more losing before the will to win emerges.

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