Asking the Wrong Question (for Decades)

Asking Wrong Question 1

For decades, top Lean promoters and influencers have challenged people with the question:

“What problem are you trying to solve?”

That’s the wrong question. It is open-ended and will include many problems that have little to do with the core business problems that determine customer satisfaction, business results, and corporate survival. When this question is asked, it inevitably contributes to the existence of both “Fake Lean” and “Junk Lean.”

The right question is:

“What problem should you be trying to solve?”

The problem people should be trying to solve is:

  • Transitioning from batch-and-queue processing to flow
  • Better synchronize supply with demand (JIT)
  • Lead-time
  • Quality
  • High costs
  • Improving throughput
  • Employee engagement
  • Simplifying work and making it easier and safer
  • Order-to-cash cycle

The fact is, these are interrelated problems, problems that every business has, whether it is a manufacturing or service business. And nonprofits and government organizations have the same or similar problems.

So how do you solve such interrelated business problems? The Junk Lean way is to solve them separately, and in doing so not recognizing how an improvement for one problem will make another problem worse. You end up making trade-offs so that problems never really get solved. So clearly, the Junk Lean way is not the way to go. But it has been that for decades because Lean professionals have been challenged with the wrong question.

The atomistic preconception that complex business problems can be solved by thinking of them as if they existed in isolation of one another is deeply flawed. This preconception exists among the sellers of Lean tool books and training — which means you have been misled — and has been very successful because it aligns with a bedrock business preconception. Decontextualizing interrelated problems is a hallmark of classical management, the very thing that Lean management seeks to displace but has been unable to do so because it shares the same preconception. To my eyes, top Lean promoters and influencers suffer from the same hubris as most economists who remain mired in fallacious atomistic thinking since the 18th century, in contradiction of reality. Perhaps they know better, but it is not apparent from what they are selling.

One of the reasons why I speak and write so much about Toyota’s kaizen method that I learned from Shingijutsu in the mid-1990s is because kaizen teaches you how to solve interrelated business problems with no tradeoffs. Amazing!! Yet the business of Lean, driven in part by customer demand, largely moved away from kaizen starting 25 years ago in preference for Lean tools (atomized kaizen): value stream maps, A3 reports, kata, gemba walks, coaching, and visual management boards. That was a huge mistake then, and clearly evident as a huge mistake now given the prevalence of Fake Lean and Junk Lean.

So, what now? Put away your Lean tool books and stop thinking about Lean tools as the preferred way to solve individual business problems. Focus instead on kaizen to solve interrelated problems to produce a stronger and more competitive business that leads the competition in customer satisfaction. Get back to basics and master the fundamentals.

But then there is the common problem that what you should be working on is not what the boss will let you work on because it upends the status quo. What should you do about that? You should learn why most leaders remain committed to the status quo. If you fail to do that, you will be forever frustrated in your efforts to make meaningful improvements in your organization. You will likely job-hop and run into the same problem everywhere else, thereby ever escaping the problem. Instead, get some satisfaction by learning what’s going on. You might not like it, but understanding the lay of the land will surely ease your mind.

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