Lean Retrospective

After nearly 25 years of study, practice, and teaching Toyota’s management system and Lean management, it is time for a quick look back.

Over the years I have found that many people are confused by my work because I am neither a pure Lean promoter nor a pure Lean critic. My body of work spans both categories. My work also spans Lean transformation process success and failure. That adds to the confusion. Despite the hazards that my curiosity generates, this comprehensive work needed to be done because without it our understanding of progressive management (both TPS and Lean, and Scientific Management before them) would be incomplete. Vast gaps, obvious to most people, had to be closed. While Lean promotion and Lean success stories are both necessary and useful, robust criticism and detailed failure analysis of Lean are also necessary and useful because they offer the most potent learning in the service of continuous improvement.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my hands-on practice of TPS/Lean and sharing my knowledge and personal learning through writing books, blog posts, academic papers, teaching degree-seeking students, and executive training. It has been a magnificent and satisfying romp through a vast expanse of exciting new ways of thinking and doing things. My TPS teachers, Shingijutsu consultants, provided my initial (and perpetual) inspiration, followed by the work of Womack and Jones, Ohno and other Toyota leaders, the Toyoda family, Monden, Fujimoto, Byrne, Kaplan, Taylor, the Gilbreths, Cooke, Gantt, and numerous other progressive management practitioners and authors.

As a teacher, I have always had three intertwined goals: 1) Learn TPS/Lean via hands-on application, 2) Create new contributions to the body of Lean knowledge, and 3) Help people learn, improve, and succeed. I believe I have largely achieved these goals — notwithstanding one is never done learning, and there is always more to do.

Over the last 25 years, my research has focused on the most important questions. The period 1994-2011 focused on these three questions:

  • What is Lean leadership?
  • How do you lead a Lean transformation?
  • How do you lead a Lean business?

The results are documented in nearly two dozen academic papers, hundreds of blog posts, and numerous books including:

I, like many others, sought to learn and communicate how to achieve a successful Lean transformation. In doing so, we advocate for and promote Lean. Yet, that is only half the job — it provides only half the necessary information — and it is where nearly everyone stops. Importantly, “everyone” includes all the biggest names in Lean.

The other half of the job is to figure out why Lean transformation processes fail. Over the last three decades, 100 percent of this half of the effort has focused on the first-order, or surface-level, phenomena such as lack of leadership commitment, poor training, Lean tools focus, wrong metrics, resistance to change, Lean not understood as a strategy, etc. Stopping at the surface-level reflects a satisfaction with these answers and indifference to deeper exploration. I chose to do more.

So while continuing to work on the above questions, I began researching new questions during the period 2007-2018 to solve the elusive Lean transformation problem:

  • Why are executives disinterested in Lean management?
  • Why do executives resist Lean?
  • Why does Lean fail to take root in organizations?

The deeper causes that I examined include the economic, social, political, historical, philosophical, and business (with some psychology too). The results are documented in this book:

and in these blog posts:

FP 1
Click on image to enlarge.

Over the years there has been more interest in the first set of questions than the second set, likely because people simply prefer to avoid uncomfortable questions that have no easy answers. This preference is highly consequential in that it weakens both the ability to advance Lean in industry and the ability to defend Lean in organizations where success has been achieved.

Yet, the second set of questions, and my published findings, are actually far more important than the first set. That is because without answers to the second set of questions, answers to the first set of questions are largely irrelevant — meaning, the adoption of Lean management may succeed for a time, but it will eventually be quickly undone by the answers I found to the second set of questions. Said another way, the two sets of research questions complement and inform one another. One without the other is useless, so you need to know both.

The failure of Lean management to take root across all industries and displace Classical management is, in truth, a human failure to adapt to changing circumstances and evolve. The many ties to traditions bind the mind so tightly that it cannot escape to even imagine, let alone create, a new reality that better serves human interests. Occasionally, a leader is able to break their binds and do some great things for people. Rather than being the exception, we strive to make such leaders the rule. But this cannot become the rule unless the nature of the ties that bind people to tradition are thoroughly understood. That is why the second set of research questions is so important. As Taiichi Ohno said (TPS, p. 107):

“[Tradition] might be acceptable in private life, but in industry, outdated customs must be eliminated.”

Therefore, I hope many in the Lean community will seek to comprehend my results from 2007-2018 to better understand and apply the results from 1994-2011 (or the work of luminaries such as Michael Ballé, Jean Cunningham, Daniel Jones, Jeffery Liker, Karen Martin, Mike Rother, John Shook, or James Womack). This long-missing information may well prove to be the most important factor in determining the future success or failure of Lean itself. Ignore it at your own risk (i.e. wasted time, wasted money etc.) or embrace it to find new ways to improve the Lean transformation process and resulting outcomes.

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