Back to Basics

In a  recent blog post, The Lean-Industrial Complex, I said:

“Over time, the people with decades of hands-on practice in real-world settings would fall into the background, while the people who merely studied TPS [Toyota Production System] emerged as the arbiters of Lean thought and Lean practice. That such a thing could happen is remarkable give that Lean is rooted in hands-on daily practice over many, many years.”

There is great peril in following the lead of people whose understanding of Lean/TPS is a weak derivative of its original purpose and intent, and who have no actual hands-on practice. For example, it will motivate you to focus on investors’ interests by creating wealth (stock price), versus focusing on customers and providing them with ever-better products and services.

Professor Yasuhiro Monden captured the essence of TPS in conversations with Taiichi Ohno. In the book, Toyota Production System (first edition, 1983, page 2), Monden says:

“…although cost-reduction is the system’s most important goal, it must achieve three other sub-goals in order to achieve its primary objective. They include:

1. Quantity control, which enables the system to adapt to daily and monthly fluctuations in demand in terms of quantities and variety;
2. Quality assurance, which assures that each process will supply only good units to subsequent processes;
3. Respect-for-humanity, which must be cultivated while the system utilizes the human resources to obtain its cost objectives.

It should be emphasized here that these three goals cannot exist independently or be achieved independently without influencing each other or the primary goal of cost reduction. It is a special feature of the Toyota production system that the primary goal cannot be achieved without realization of the subgoals and vice versa. All goals are outputs of the same system; with productivity as the ultimate purpose and guiding concept, the Toyota production system strives to realize each of the goals for which it has been designed.”

The popular version of TPS, Lean production, ignored this accurate characterization and evolved to favor a more narrow economic rationale. By not understanding the thinking and practices of the originals leaders, people have failed to grasp many critically important aspects of TPS:

  • Learning to think differently about everything
  • The rapid pace of improvement; everybody, every day
  • Connection between challenges, teamwork, and time as a means to focus people’s work
  • How to unleash human creativity and innovation
  • Improving without spending money to concurrently achieve interconnected sets of favorable outcomes

Toyota has been making great efforts in recent years to return to the basics — the basic way of thinking and the basic way of doing things. Why? They began to veer off track in the mid-1990s and it culminated in quality problems and vast recalls by 2010.

Likewise, Lean began to veer off track in the mid-1990s as well, culminating in Lean tools becoming widely viewed as an end unto themselves. This too is a major quality problem and should result in a massive recall.

Remarkably, the promoters of Lean did not understand the importance of classic industrial engineering-based process improvement. Lean tools exist to support kaizen, not to replace it. You should follow Toyota’s lead and return to the basics as well – especially kaizen.

To do that, you must learn from the originals, in person if that option exists, or from books. Carefully study the writings of Taiichi Ohno (1, 2, 3, 4). Learn from Chihiro Nakao (1, 2, 3), who learned directly from Ohno-san and is perhaps his most accomplished disciple. And, learn from those academics who had direct contact with Ohno-san such as Yasuhiro Monden and Takahiro Fujimoto.

Doing this will result in greater clarity of purpose and of the means to achieve goals and objectives that matter to both customers and the enterprise.

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