Advice to Young Lean Professionals

Oftentimes, it is only later in life that you wish you had been given advice that could have helped you better succeed or avoid much stress and anguish. Pursuant to that, here is my advice for young Lean professionals — and maybe some old Lean professionals too!

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  • Be very careful who you allow yourself to be influenced by. Most of the top influencers do not understand the basics of Toyota Production System (TPS), The Toyota Way (TW), or kaizen.
  • It is better to recognize sooner, rather than later, that Lean is not the same thing as TPS/TW. You can think of TPS/TW as the original, and Lean as a much lower resolution copy. That is not to say that Lean cannot do some good. It is to say that they are different in important ways, both visible and not-so-visible.
  • Thirty or forty years ago, there was not nearly as much material (principally, books and videos) to help you learn about TPS/TW and Lean management as there is today. There is an abundance of low-cost and no-cost resources. So, all you really have to do is read it (or watch it or listen to it), try it out, and repeat. And don’t give up. You do not need expensive classroom training courses.
  • Practice kaizen continuously. Value stream maps, A3 reports, Gemba walks, kata, etc., are all subordinate to kaizen in terms of priority for learning and use. Please remember that.
  • Many things look or sound simple in Lean world, and much more so with TPS/TW, but are instead actually very deep and require a lot of study and practice to gain both understanding and proficiency. It is common for people to say, “I’ve been at this for 20 years and I have barely scratched the surface.” That is true, and it is because progressive management is infinite in the depth of learning, whereas classical management is shallow and finite. Example: Got yourself in a jam? The solution is always simple and always the same: lay people off, close facilities, and squeeze suppliers.
  • Nearly all Lean conferences are for beginners. Their primary purpose is to generate and energize new recruits. Sure, even if you have more advanced knowledge there is always something to learn at these conferences, mostly useful reminders or the occasional new idea to try. But, after you attend a few (expensive) conferences, you will soon begin to be disappointed with them. If you hunger for advanced thinking and practice, you have to look elsewhere.
  • Don’t be fooled by people who say TPS/TW or Lean isn’t about cost reduction. Most people confuse “cost reduction” in the Toyota sense, particularly as it relates to kaizen, with “cost-cutting.” The latter is the go-to solution for common business problems in classically managed organizations. In the former, cost reduction is a general concept related to thinking, creativity, and learning, and it means to eliminate unnecessary activities without causing harm to people. Cost reduction the TPS/TW way is the *true* source of developing people and respecting people. Lean management, as it is popularly understood and practiced today, has become a mere shadow of TPS/TW, unrecognizable and nowhere near sufficient to produce the stunning business and people results that companies such as Wiremold achieved decades ago. As with many things pertaining to TPS/TW, the English words do not convey the full meaning. As a professional, it is incumbent on you to carefully study TPS/TW sufficiently to understand the many nuances and details. You’ll be glad you did.
  • Learn how to think for yourself, as this is fundamental. It is alluring and easy to look to other people for answers to your problems, but they are likely deeply scripted in misinformation or archaic preconceptions that will mislead you. There are so many people who will tell you how to think, both in classical management world and Lean world. Instead, you must further develop your abilities to think critically; you must always be skeptical and ask: “Is that true? How do I know it’s true? I’d better find out for myself.” Only you can do it.
  • Everyone is trying to sell you something — me too (here, here, and here, but at least it is inexpensive). You would be wise to put in the effort to separate substance from fluff. Most things in Lean world that are expensive are not worth the money. Fluff is popular and is a much bigger seller than substance. That is your tip-off.
  • Respect for People,” a pillar of The Toyota Way, means respect for stakeholders: employees, suppliers, customers, investors, communities, and investors. “Respect for People” is often mistakenly interpreted literally and narrowly as kindness or courtesy (essentially, regard for the feelings of others), important as they are. What “Respect for People” further means is mutual trust, mutual responsibility, sincere communication, diverse perspectives, commitment to education and development (personal and professional growth, self and others), curiosity, selflessness, and teamwork. “Respect for People” means to challenge yourself and others to think and observe in new ways, and is the enabler of the other pillar of The Toyota Way, “Kaizen” (literally, “change for the better,” loosely translated as “continuous improvement”). “Respect for People” means even more than all that, and it’s your job to figure it out as you practice kaizen. Learning about “Respect for People” is never-ending, and it evolves over time as circumstances change. In recent decades in Lean world, “Respect for People” has overtaken “Kaizen,” the latter having mostly fallen by the wayside in favor of value stream maps, A3 reports, Gemba walks, kata, etc. This is a huge error that you must help correct. The two must be practiced together.
  • Don’t become overly focused on data. Data is important but facts matter more than data because data can easily be manipulated. Always go to the source of the problem, carefully observe to understand the situation, and work with the team to understand and correct the problem quickly.
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  • Lean world lost, or perhaps never had, a clear sense of the time function associated with improvement via Toyota-style kaizen. The process of creating a Just-in-Time system, and of operating and improving it, requires immediate identification and rectification of problems (e.g., stagnation). The larger lesson to learn, even without JIT, is that you must learn to recognize and correct problems quickly. This is unlike classical management, where problems are often late to be recognized and are corrected slowly and incompletely. Even if a problem is corrected quickly, classical management almost always focuses on symptoms rather than root causes. As a professional, you must learn to recognize and correct problems quickly at the source, gain the skill of using methods of causal analysis quickly (e.g., 5 Whys — requires a lot of practice to do it well), and quickly implement countermeasures so that resource-eating problems do not recur.
  • Many people make a wonderful improvement and then stop. That’s no good. Instead, keep thinking about how to make additional improvements. Waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness always exists no matter how good the process looks. The problem is that you cannot yet see waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness. Keep trying. Improve your observation skills and kaizen practice. Don’t give up.
  • Don’t remain fixed or dogmatic in your thinking or application of methods or tools (easy to say, hard to do). Systems, methods, tools, etc., should evolve as times and circumstances change but remain consistent with the fundamental principles, “Kaizen” and “Respect for People.” Don’t get caught up in political or metaphysical worlds that would press you maintain the status quo. Stay focused on reality.
  • At some point you will surely hear about “Lean Six Sigma.” It is best that you avoid it. Why? Because six sigma was added on to Lean by the six sigma folks to keep six sigma alive. They succeeded in doing that. But what you should know is that it is the marrying of a management system (Lean) with a tool (six sigma), and as such makes no sense.
  • The most capable professionals are student-practitioners. That means they continuously cycle between the study (and restudy) of a topic and on-the-job practice. Study can mean books, videos, podcasts, academic papers, conversations, trial and error, etc. Never stop being a student. As any professional will tell you, there is always more to learn.
  • Most of your work is in service to others, not yourself. Help make people’s work easier, help make customers happier, and help make suppliers better business partners.
  • You will experience many more failures than successes. That’s great if you like to learn and grow (but very bad if you don’t). Still, you must never accept the status quo. Be prepared to be criticized for that, perhaps severely at times.

I am sure that I have left out a few important things. Check back later for new additions to this post.

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