Simplifying Lean


Gaining mass appeal for something usually means to simplify it so that people can both see a need for it and to make it easier to understand and use. That means ensuring the product or service is an advancement while at the same time not breaking so many norms that people avoid it, or confidently suggest a new norm is now acceptable.

The Holy Grail of Lean-world is the mass adoption of Lean management by organizations worldwide. Originally, “Lean” was intended to be a generic term for Toyota Production system (TPS), a method for creating material and information flow by eliminating waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness. But, being an interpretation of TPS, Lean itself is a simplification of the method. The problem is that this first-level of simplification is still complicated and thus has not produced the desired result of the mass adoption of Lean management by organizations worldwide (click here and here to learn the other more important factors that thwart progressive management).

If you were to further simplify Lean, how would you do it? There are two choices:

  • Simplify the method
  • Simplify the objective

Together, the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) and the Lean Enterprise Academy (LEA) took the path of further simplifying the method. What they did, starting in 1999, was to deconstruct TPS into the component tools that were created from the practice of kaizen. Their view seems to have been that the sum of the parts (so-called “Lean tools”) will produce the whole, Lean management. Overall, that did not happen. Why? Because the method that created TPS, kaizen, and which would create Lean, was largely ignored post-1996. While the Lean Enterprise Institute still ignores kaizen, the Lean Enterprise Academy began to offer classroom (not genba) kaizen training courses in late 2022.

The other way to further simplify Lean is to simplify the objective. What is the objective? It is not to become Lean. Instead, it is uninterrupted flows of material and information. What is the method for doing that? It can be whatever you decide — a priori or figure it out as you go — so long as the method does no harm to people (employees, suppliers, customers, investors, and communities) and the planet. Use your imagination and experiment via trial and error. The guiding principles, however, should be as they always are for progressive management, “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” (or move on to “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for Planet”), the latter being the driving force for generating ideas and creating the energy and spirit needed for continuous improvement.

But there is a problem with simplifying the objective: it is not a good business model compared to simplifying the method. If the goal is to advance Lean thinking and practice — doing good things for people, organizations, and the planet by creating uninterrupted flows of material and information — then business model be damned. There should be as few restrictions as possible to achieving the objective. Unfortunately, the Lean tools and tool training courses act as barriers to achieving the objective, not as the enablers that they were once imagined to be.

Few people in the Lean community today recognize the objective of creating uninterrupted flows of material and information. Instead, they understand Lean as tools for solving the general problems that arise in organizations. The objective is no longer relevant to the Lean community because of the fateful decision 25 years ago to focus on Lean tools. Over the decades, people have been trained by LEI, LEA, and others to believe that knowing Lean tools was more important than striving to achieve uninterrupted flows of material and information.

Unfortunately, Lean’s first generation leaders have not practiced the Plan-Do-Check-Act problem-solving cycle that they have heartily promoted for decades (indeed, walking the talk can be difficult). They have done a lot of Plan-Do, and apparently some Check now and then, but it is clear they fail when it comes to Act. They seem stuck in the late-1990s, preferring to continue doing more of the same and hoping for a better outcome from their first- and second-level simplifications. Listen to feedback? Forget about it. Their high status assures that such debasement will not occur.

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