Lean Overproduction

We all know that the human and technical aspects of Lean management are learned by doing, often with the help of a sensei or coach. Supplemental sources of information – books, training courses, conferences, etc. – can be helpful in providing additional details, generating new questions, and motivation for improvement.

I, along with many other authors, have written books explaining various aspects of Lean management and have also taught or trained many people. While our work was produced with good intentions, to help people learn and improve, I have been thinking a lot about this lately: Have we explained too much and answered too many questions about Lean management? Have we created a situation in which people don’t have to think for themselves?

Despite the answers to tens of thousands of questions that we have given over the years in our books, training courses, and elsewhere, Fake Lean remains far more prevalent than REAL Lean. It is apparent that knowledge of Lean management and flow differs greatly from experience with Lean management and flow. The former comes from books, classroom training, and conferences, while the later comes from going to the genba and creating flow. Is is remarkable the extent to which creating and improving flow is experiential, and how little books actually have to offer.

People interested in Lean management no longer have to think as they once did, even as recently as 15 years ago. If, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you wanted to learn about Toyota’s production system, there were few books available. You were most likely to read the books written by Taiichi Ohno (1, 2, 3) and Yasuhiro Monden (1, 2), well as Shigeo Shingo (1, 2). When there was little information available, you had to discover TPS and Toyota Way principles and practices yourself through trial-and-error. The learning was far more valuable when you had to struggle. And only the few who struggled a lot actually learned how to do it – how to create flow.

Today, you can quickly find the information you need in a book, a video, or a blog. Then your mind plays a trick on you: It tells you that knowing about something is darn close – or even the same – as having actually done it. There is a large gap between knowing and doing, but your mind tricks you into thinking the gap is small or non-existent. This leads to overconfidence in what one knows. And then we excessively praise those who apply a few easy-to-use Lean tools they read about in a book or learned in a training course and who do little more.

Substituting knowing for doing has given birth to “Lean intellectualism,” an over-emphasis on thinking and under-emphasis on doing, which includes the ability to speak fluently about Lean management but without ever actually having done anything of significance. How many people have actually created a flow line? How many people have actually made small improvements to a process every day for five or 10 years? Or, do they just know the answers from having read a book without having to think for themselves?

overprod_leanTaiichi Ohno taught us “…the waste of overproduction – [is] our worst enemy – because it helps hide other wastes” (Toyota Production System, p. 59). It appears we did not learn this important lesson. We have overproduced books, training courses, conferences, consultants, and so on. It has resulted in large inventories that are difficult to sell because we have produced to a forecast rather than to actual demand. The production quantity greatly exceeds the required number, which remains small even today.

And, defects abound in the form of wrong, inaccurate, incomplete, missing, and misleading information. In general, the producers of Lean products and services for business audiences lack awareness of important works and thus fail to build on the work of others. The advancement of Lean knowledge is hindered by this big defect which, in turn, generates many smaller defects.

When it comes to books, how many of us practice what we preach? Are our physical books manufactured print-on-demand – sell one, make one (mine were, from the start in 2003)? Or did authors sign on with publishers who produced large inventories? Do we obtain market feedback to help determine if a new Lean training course or conference is needed, or are training courses and conferences created and deployed in the hope that seats get filled?

The community of Lean authors and trainers have together fallen prey to four of the seven wastes: overproduction, inventories, processing, and defects. Surely the wastes of waiting, transportation, and movement are also in play. This will do far more harm than good. It seems we have created a difficult and complex situation for the consumers of our products and services. Customer have great difficulty sorting good information from bad and the necessary from the unnecessary. It is unclear which resources are value-added and which resources are waste.

To help customers sort though the information, many people claim to be an “expert” on their web site, in marketing materials, or on their resume, without actually having accomplished anything of significance. Compare that to those with great practical knowledge and long records of meaningful and impactful work who do not consider themselves “expert.”

The Japanese word “shuhari” describes the stages of learning on the way to achieving mastery. Taiichi Ohno was the master, reaching the level of ri. Even people with several decades of hands-on experience creating flow and taught by Taiichi Ohno himself will tell you they are ha. Everyone else, including the self-proclaimed “experts,” are shu – and mostly bad shu because they deviate from the master’s teachings. In addition, the “experts” are likely to lecture others on Lean leadership and the importance of humility, listening, self-awareness, and so on. Ironic, isn’t it?

Of course, it is impossible to retract products and services that have been put into the marketplace for consumption of popular Lean knowledge. Time, not Lean experts, will eventually provide the answers to my questions.

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