Thoughts on “Lean Thinking at 20”

The 20th anniversary of the book Lean Thinking was marked on 28 and 29 September 2016 by an interview of James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones. Below are some thoughts and critiques of selected passages from the interview:

From Part 1 of the Interview

Jim: …organizations struggle to make good margins, customers report declining confidence in the ability of providers to solve their problems, and employees report low engagement and a lack of satisfaction in their work… Lean thinking was and is the best-known way to sustainably improve this situation.

Comment: There is a large body of empirical evidence that, when it comes to improvement via Lean, sustainability is elusive. It is akin to knowing how to play a music instrument; faltering physical practice results in a decline in capabilities. Likewise, a decline in curiosity to learn more about the instrument and music results in stagnant or declining capabilities. It is better to not seek or think in terms of sustainability. Instead, think as sensei Nagamatsu-san does: “We are always at out worst. You may think you are a good company today, but make no mistake you are not. You may become better tomorrow, but still you are toward the back. At any moment, somewhere in this world there is someone doing the same work better.  There is no end. You must continually seek to improve.”

Dan: Perhaps the biggest lesson is that there is much more to lean than they [top management] (and we) thought…

Comment: I am a bit perplexed by this comment. Womack and Jones’ association with Toyota leaders should have quickly taught them the infinite nature of kaizen. This realization was apparently late in coming and therefore inadequately conveyed to top managers.

Dan: The unique power of these practices is that they can’t be dismissed as not working – they are alive and working in our continuing reference model Toyota.

Comment: True, but they can be dismissed by top managers who have a dozen choices when it comes to the various methods they can use to “improve” the business. Lean is easily the toughest method and therefore easy to dismiss. Efforts to make Lean more user friendly, and thus diminish the degree of difficulty between it and other methods have proven unsuccessful thus far. Leaders do not see Lean as strategic, but rather as a tactical way for workers to improve processes.

Jim: But the creation of true lean enterprises combining lean techniques with lean management has hardly been achieved anywhere. We are still at the beginning of the lean transformation!

Comment: Thirty-five years after Frederick Winslow Taylor’s death, his associate, Harlow Person, said the following in the Foreword to the 1947 book Scientific Management: Comprising Shop Management, Principles of Scientific Management, Testimony Before the House Committee (by Frederick Winslow Taylor, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, NY), Harlow Person said (p. xii):

“In the course of his [1912] testimony before the House committee [to Investigate the Taylor and Other Systems of Shop Management], Taylor was asked how many concerns [companies] used his system in its entirety. His reply was: ‘In its entirety – none; not one.’ Then, in response to another question he went on to say that a great many used it substantially, to a greater or less degree. Were Mr. Taylor alive to respond to the same question in 1947 – thirty-five years later – his reply would have to be essentially the same.”

It seems we are re-living history.

Jim: I’ve said since Lean Thinking was launched with the thought that its most important contribution would be to give managers the courage to try their own experiments.

Comment: Business history informs us that few managers are courageous in the ways necessary for progressive management to thrive.

Jim: The two points we did make [in the book] – and that many lean adopters in senior management have ignored – are 1) that lean is not about cost-cutting but about providing more value by means of a better value-creating process and 2) that the work experience will improve when everyone can see the whole value stream and the consequences of their own efforts and get feedback continuously and instantly on how to improve the results while making work easier.

Comment: The subtitle of the book, “Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation,” did not signal these two points to top managers. In fact, it signaled Lean as a means to increase stock price by improving processes, with the added boost of laying off employees.

Dan: “… ‘people-centric’ solutions are cheaper to start, cheaper to maintain, more exactly focused on the varied needs of users and waste far less resources, while at the same time they can easily adapt to changing circumstances. Lean provides an alternative voice to the relentless march of those seeking “people-free” solutions.

Comment: Well-said. I agree. But we must consider the possibility that Lean will be made irrelevant or eclipsed by the relentless (and increasingly rapid) advancement of technology. As the great Frank George Woollard said long ago, “We must always remember that men were not made for machines, but that machines were made for man… the motto must be… ‘Machines in the Service of Man’.”

From Part 2 of the Interview

Dan: First, lean has to be seen as strategic, and therefore top management has to be convinced about the business case for lean. In our enthusiasm to carry out proof of concept experiments to show how lean works we failed to give this sufficient attention.

Comment: The history of progressive management is littered with those who have attempted to convince top managers that progressive management is strategic. Womack, Jones, and the rest of us have largely failed, just as those before us have. Why? What are the root causes?

Dan: Is Kaizen the ultimate antidote to “big company” disease?

Comment. No, Toyota, the foremost practitioner of kaizen, succumbed to big company disease in the early- to mid-2000s, and they are still working to recover.

Dan: Developing capabilities of employees by learning-by-doing is a line management responsibility, not a staff function.

Comment: So true!

Jim: I hope it is simply that the life of lean is experiments, not dogma.

Comment: Dogma is built into Lean, and therefore inescapable. And so are its consequences, one of which is a failure to learn – particularly from others.

Jim: The problem is with “thinking.” That’s passive rather than active and we brought up this point with our editor as we were preparing the book for launch. “How about ‘lean transformation’ or something that conveys the necessity of learning by trying experiments?” To which the editor – looking at sales of the book rather than the effect of the book on managers – said, “People love to think, which has no risk. But they hate to act, which is dangerous. So let’s stick with lean thinking. That title will sell.” And at that time publishing contracts always stated “the publisher retains the right to title the work.” So…we got Lean Thinking.

Comment: Interesting insights into the motivation of publishers versus the motivation of authors. That is why I self-publish. I have always been more interested in my work having a good effect on managers than sales. Also, the subtitle, “Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation,” was not mentioned as a problem, which it certainly was, because it cued top managers to recognize Lean as a means to increase the stock price – typically at employees’ expense (e.g. layoffs).

Dan: The more I think about it the more I think that Lean Thinking was the right title for the book, although I would now add “and Practice.” Practice in both senses of the word; practice as in the many hours learning to play the violin (daily Kaizen) and practice as the way your approach any problem in life.

Comment: Learning how to play music is an excellent analogy! Kaizen is indeed the key. The question is, why has kaizen has not been of greater prominence in the advancement of Lean? The emphasis has been on value stream maps, A3 reports, genba walks, and so on. The focus should be on kaizen and flow.

Dan: At its heart, lean is a cognitive revolution and not an organizational one. Lean thinking cannot be learnt from abstract thinking alone, but only through repeated, structured practice with “ah-ha” insights as to why common notions are wrong – in other words, “by acting our way to a new way of thinking.” This applies as much to top managers as it does to front-line teams, “you learn by helping others to learn.”

Comment: Lean is merely the current name for progressive management, which was pioneered by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the late 1800s. In his book, The Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor said: “…the really great problem involved in a change from the management of ‘initiative and incentive’ [conventional management] to scientific management consists in a complete revolution in the mental attitude and the habits of all those engaged in the management, as well as of the workmen.” It has therefore long been recognized that progressive management requires a mental or cognitive revolution. Note that Taylor said this applies to workers as well as managers. Both must experience a mental revolution. Hands-on practice by both managers and workers is necessary but not sufficient, as there are multiple dimensions to the mental revolution beyond the work itself. One dimension is economics, and it is perhaps the most powerful dimension in its ability to thwart the mental revolution.

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