We all know that Lean is mostly learned by doing (which includes observation), but it would be a mistake to think it is not necessary to read books. Why? We read books to help us understand new ideas and practices, evaluate our thinking, and make sure we are headed in the right direction. The most capable Lean practitioners have all been avid readers of books to understand what others accomplished before them, and to set a clearer direction for their own work. Books are important because they can illustrate a target condition, the mindset, methods, and rules achieve a target condition, and the approximate time it can take to get to a target.
Taiichi Ohno read books by Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford (and perhaps magazine articles on Ford’s methods by Horace Arnold and Fay Faurote), likely Frank Gilbreth and Frank Woollard (due to its great relevance to Toyota), and perhaps Dexter Kimball and Ralph Barnes (second generation industrial engineers). Art Byrne, retired CEO of The Wiremold Company, was strongly influenced by Taiichi Ohno’s book, Toyota Production System and Shigeo Shingo’s books, A Revolution in Manufacturing: The SMED System and A Study of the Toyota Production System From An Industrial Engineering Viewpoint, among others. I was strongly influenced by books written by dozens of authors, including Thomas Cleary (eastern philosophy), Masaaki Imai, Yasuhiro Monden, Taiichi Ohno, Shigeo Shingo, Eiji Toyoda, James Womack and Daniel Jones, as well as by hundreds of authors of scholarly journal papers in topics ranging from leadership and organizational behavior to economics to operations and supply chain management and corporate governance.
Why is it important to read books, especially in an era of declining book readership? Think about what happens if you don’t read: You forego the opportunity to become informed. As a result, you will likely use bad sources of information to guide yourself and others on a journey that can significantly impact people’s lives and livelihoods. If you rely on bad information, you will misinform people or, worse yet, cause harm to people.
Reading is work to some and time-consuming for all. It is much easier to not read and instead hear about Lean from other people, through talks given at conferences or in conversation. But there can be problems with doing that. The context may not be fully explained. Or, the person you are hearing speak or talking with may not know what they are talking about. So, you have to be discriminating about the people who you allow to influence you, just as you have to be discriminating about the books and articles that you read about Lean management.
The act of writing requires that the author do a lot of research (which also means a lot of reading), to discover the truth. Writing is often referred to as being synonymous with thinking – in particular, critical thinking. To think critically means to evaluate the sources and methods described in written (and other) materials found while doing research. Critical think means challenging authors’ (as well as your own) beliefs and assumptions, searching for illogical and inconsistent thinking, and looking for common decision-making traps that humans fall prey to. Doing careful research and deliberate critical thinking means to perform a labored analysis – essentially, a rigorous inspection process to assure quality – whose intent is to eliminate defects and ensure one’s output is both accurate and valid. If research and critical thinking are done well, then the result is information that readers can rely on.
Generally, the books that contain good, useful information (vs. a nice cover) are well-research and contain lots of citations to the sources of information that informed the author. Though, having lots of citations does not mean that a book contains good information. Authors are human and therefore subject to biases, and could have cited sources that supported their preconceived ideas or desired outcomes, and ignored all citations that contradict it. That is faulty research.
Conversely, having few or no citations does not mean the information in a book is bad. Many practitioners of progressive management have written books that reflect their life experience and contain accurate and useful information. Generally, the good books are the ones whose authors have had deep and varied work experiences, such as having started on the shop floor and risen to the level of general manager, vice president, or president. In other words, these authors have developed broad, insightful, and interesting perspectives that few others have. Therefore, we can learn a lot from them. Their work becomes someone else’s citation.
There is no magic formula for distinguishing between books that contain good, useful information from those that do not. You cannot use book sales as a proxy for quality. Many great Lean books have been written that sold poorly. Recommendations from people you know and trust may be better. But, the surest way to discern good information from bad is to read a lot. Doing that requires one to develop a basic discipline to read one or two chapters a day (or an academic paper every few days). Over time, you will have read a lot and know clearly which books (or papers) are great and which are poor. If you are in a position to significantly impact people’s lives and livelihoods now, or in the future, you should know which Lean books contain information that you can rely on.
Here is a list of books to get you started.