Thoughts On “Lean Thinking – The Making of a Book”

The 20th anniversary of the book Lean Thinking was marked on 21 September 2016 by an interview of James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones. The interview was interesting from a number of perspectives. Below are some thoughts and critiques of selected passages from the interview:

Jim Womack: Our aim was to give people a license to try something new. That’s why we structured the book the way we did, in three parts: a simple explanation of what lean is (the five principles)…

Comment: The 5 principles of Lean (Thinking) are a different expression of principles than either TPS or The Toyota Way. Lean is certainly a useful interpretation, derivative, or dilution (depending on your perspective) of the Toyota Production System (TPS) and The Toyota Way, but they are not the same thing.

Dan Jones: I believe that the book succeeded in particular because it spoke to people who were struggling with the challenges brought forward by globalization (like Chinese competition, for example) and with making things better at work to engage a new generation of employees with different expectations about involvement.

Comment: The subtitle of Lean Thinking is “Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation.” Wealth creation – increasing the stock price – is what resonated with managers in the mid- to late-1990s (and thereafter). Globalization led to rapid outsourcing and offshoring (and widespread layoffs), not the detailed and painstaking work of improving the company’s internal processes and developing human capabilities. Managers did not care about what the new generation of (then) employees wanted.

Dan Jones: At first, people plowed through the tools and, for a long time, they believed that the toolbox was all there was to lean… But I think this was a necessary step to establish the movement and later come to the realization that it is up to management to make lean a success. Now we have gone further, talking about lean as a strategy and a learning process for leaders. We are on the cusp of answering a lot of questions, and we couldn’t have done it without this movement, or without its mistakes.

Comment: The problem is the timescale. These important realizations should have come much sooner to Womack and Jones and their respective organizations. The transition from Lean production to Lean management and Lean leadership was too slow. Lean as a strategy is a “slow burn” for stable long-term growth and survival, which is unappealing to leaders who seek fast results. If Lean is now a learning process for senior leaders, one needs to step back and recognize the reality of what that means. I have met many leaders. Few think they have much new to learn. For sure, Womack and Jones know this as well.

Jim Womack: We didn’t give people any advice on how to sustain either. For example, there is no discussion at all about creating the basic stability that is the necessary foundation for sustainable kaizen. Dan and I had never been managers and assumed that managers in most organizations would have the energy and ability to sustain results. It turned out they couldn’t, and that the management systems of most companies were designed to do re-work on top of chaos, not to sustain kaizen gains. We didn’t give any advice on this problem because we weren’t aware of it.

Comment: Sustainability is a myth. Leaders can never sustain results (in anything) because things change every day, managers come and go, and organizations are merged or sold. One can never reach a state where Lean resides within the company’s DNA. Lean resides in people. Non-Lean thinking is like gravity, constantly pulling you down. “Three steps forward, one step back” has long been the reality. It is only through daily hard work that Lean moves forward over time. Think of it like a musician’s practice. Capabilities decline if one does not practice, and practice, itself, is difficult to sustain long-term.

Dan Jones: As writers rather than managers, Jim and I could only write what we saw other managers do during our research. Indeed, we assumed people would want to figure lean out by themselves; instead, we discovered they wanted us to tell them what to do.

Comment: The modern history of management (ca. 1880 forward) is littered with examples of managers wanting other people to tell them what to do. And if you succeed in doing that, managers often ignore it. Most managers focus their attention on figuring out the things that are of immediate interest – the metric, the competitive threat, the internal politics, etc. Lean is not well suited for people whose interest in thinking is limited or who are unwilling to abandon their preconceptions.

Dan Jones: Absolutely. Lean is a people-centric solution, not a people-free solution. Taylorism was about building a system, designed by experts, which any fool could operate, while lean is a management system centered on people and growing out of the gemba.

Comment: This is a common mischaracterization of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s work, and also fails to recognize how Taylor’s work evolved in his time and thereafter, and its role (as well as Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s work) in laying the foundation for TPS and The Toyota Way. It turns out any fool could not operate Scientific Management correctly. That was manager’s fault, not Taylor’s fault.

Jim Womack: We had an excellent balance in our way of working, and a wonderful relationship. Dan is a born optimist and a big-picture guy, while I am a born pessimist and obsess over details.

Comment: The context is obsessing over details pertaining to writing the book. Yet, where is the obsession over details of Lean in practice? There has never been much obsession over Fake Lean, Lean failures, the harm done to employees by Lean (e.g. layoffs, caused by managers’ misunderstandings), etc. Womack has been a highly visible and consistent cheerleader for Lean despite obvious problems which seem to have gone unnoticed for many years, and for which the details are apparently unimportant.

Jim Womack: Our approach was to never be too prescriptive. As exasperating as this was to our orthodox Toyota friends, we have always believed that experimentation and an open mind to try new things are more important than having read the Scriptures. Instead we’ve said, “Let’s go to the gemba, collect some data and let the evidence speak”. And that’s what the examples in Lean Thinking did.

Comment: It seems to me that Womack and Jones could not be too prescriptive even if they wanted to because they lacked first-hand experience with TPS, generally, and kaizen in particular. Nevertheless, experimentation and going to then genba come directly from TPS (and Scientific Management before that), not from Lean.

Jim Womack: The Shingijutsu guys were very interesting for a number of reasons. To begin with, they had worked directly with Taiichi Ohno. Secondly, they had done brownfield transformations of Toyota suppliers in Toyota’s mad rush to bring its supply base up to its lean standard after sales took off with the Corolla in 1966. So they had both the lean knowledge and a tested transformation method! The latter came in the form of the magical five-day kaizen. They would take an area of a factory or office and transform it within a week by introducing cells and one-piece flow (so it was kaikaku more than it was kaizen). It was a brilliant technique, but it was incomplete – you have to kaizen and kaikaku both the value stream and the management at the same time if you are going to succeed, but there was no method for the latter… The Shingijutsu team achieved impressive if often unsustainable results every time, which made them very popular consultants.

Comment: Shingijutsu kaizen consultants had TPS knowledge. They did not know anything about Lean (but they had indeed heard of it). Kaikaku is the one-time gain going from batch-and-queue to flow (or flow limited by supermarkets). The ongoing, day-to-day kaizen after Shingijutsu departs is the responsibility of management, which Shingijutsu makes clear, but which management often fails at. This is not Shingijutsu’s fault. No single method exists to get senior managers to do what they do not want to do. Shingijutsu teaches people Toyota-style kaizen – the heart, the mind, and the method (with unique Shingijutsu elements). It is complete if one accepts it. As with any consultant, it is not Shingijutsu’s responsibility to sustain their client’s results. It is always management’s responsibility, as Womack and Jones know first-hand in their consulting work with executives from Delphi, Tesco, and many others. To think otherwise reveals a large perceptual gap. The simple facts are that the understanding, know-how, and capabilities of Shingijutsu consultants far-far-far-far-far-far-far exceeds that of writers (writers!).

Dan Jones: Lean is all about practice and experiments, which we wrote about and interpreted. I think that the fact that academia is only now picking up on Lean Thinking says a lot.

Comment: Lean is indeed an interpretation of TPS, and, nearly 20 years later, of The Toyota Way. Academics are not the only ones behind the times.

 Jim Womack: Sadly, academia was much more comfortable with theory and with studies using large numbers of examples for statistical analysis. This means there is always a perceptual gap and a time lag with reality in their work. The view from the rearview mirror.

Comment: True as a generality, but not all academics suffer from perceptual gaps and time lags with reality (as this blog post attests).

Dan Jones: There is much more to lean than we originally thought and, so long as we keep digging and learning, we can rest assured that the movement will keep growing.

Comment: If Lean is understood to be the generic term for TPS and The Toyota Way, then there is indeed much to learn, especially through direct experience. If Lean is something different than TPS and The Toyota Way, then who knows what more there is to learn.

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