Searching For Lean Sustainability

Lean people, understandably, possess a streak of idealism in how they would like the world to be: No waste, value propositions fulfilled, social well-being, economic prosperity, and so on. It is good to have a dream and strive, over the long-term, to achieve it.

a-or-bYet, there is a tell-tale sign that most Lean people are not actually in it for the long haul. The give-away is that they talk about “sustainability.” They want to know how to achieve sustainability and when they will achieve it. What is “sustainability?” Commonly, it refers to something that can be maintained at a certain level for a long time. It implies a level of achievement after which something becomes automatic or which runs properly with little or no attention. The desire for “sustainability” is like saying: “When will I be done with all this difficult effort?” The notion of sustainability and being “done” are inconsistent with Lean management.

The expression ∞,∞∞∞ is nonsense to most people. It has no logical meaning. But, it is not nonsense to people who truly grasp Lean. They would see it as an articulation of infinite possibilities for improvement, infinitely more possibilities for improvement beyond that, and so on. You might dismiss it as a way of thinking by someone with limited education. That would be a mistake, because the expression ∞,∞∞∞ vastly expands the thinking of those who are educated to such an extent that they no longer know how to think!

The notion of sustainability is nonsense to people who understand the expression ∞,∞∞∞.

Imagine a musician asking: “When will my piano playing become sustainable?” or “How can I make my piano playing sustainable?” Playing a musical instrument never reaches the point where it becomes “sustainable.” The musician falters because of a lack of practice and backslides, or the musician advances due to continued purposeful practice until retirement. There is no rest.

Likewise, with Lean management, there is no rest. I remember many years ago, hearing Ed Northern, general manager of Pratt & Whitney’s North Haven (Connecticut) plant, say that results in the past quarter were not as expected because “we sat down.” In other words, they (managers and workers) took it easy; they rested. Their fabulous Lean efforts (described in the book Lean Thinking) were not self-sustaining. It takes the ideas and energy of people, every hour of every day, to keep moving forward. When this slows or stops, for whatever reasons, backslide ensues.

Consider a rocket to illustrate an example. You need a lot of thrust over a period of time to escape Earth’s gravity. Batch-and-queue processing is like gravity. It constantly pull you down. However, in this case, you can never completely escape it. The best you can do is to keep putting ideas for improvement and human energy into daily practice to improve flow. That is the reality of Lean management.

Thinking that Lean management is sustainable will harm your Lean efforts. Searching for an end-point (sustainability) that does not exist will bias your Lean efforts against daily practice for improvement and result in underdeveloped critical thinking skills.

The better question to ask is: “What kind of skills and capabilities do our leaders need to help keep the organization moving forward at a steady pace?” I recommend you begin here and here.

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