Wednesday, August 05, 2009

What is Lean?

Welcome guest blogger and newest addition to the Throughput consulting world, Harry Wood. By day he is a Lean Facilitator. Here, Mr. Wood has offered the definitive "What is Lean" response. What is Lean? I have been following several discussions lately (here and elsewhere) on various topics concerning Lean. One that I found a little strange asked "Can you apply Lean principles to employees?" I always thought that was the idea. So my question is this; if you had to summarize "Lean" for a group, any group, what would you tell them? Here is how I would answer my own question Five words, two concepts, one mission, that’s it, there is nothing else. If you have seen at least one presentation on Lean you have likely seen the TPS Temple (TPS stands for Toyota Production System). They are always different, some have two pillars, some three, and some have four. The problem is they are always labeled wrong. What most people do when they create their templates is to use the tools that Toyota developed as the pillars. When you boil Lean down to it’s essence: Eliminate Waste, Respect for Others, you will find that Lean can be applied anywhere and everywhere (except government). Think of the quest for a Grand Unification Theory in physics, if it is true, it is true everywhere.
Only one response contained both of these core principles. Most stated more or less that Lean is just eliminating waste. This is not sufficient for this simple reason; if you cannot mobilize every single person in your organization with the singular purpose of eliminating waste you will fail. And you cannot achieve this without treating everyone with respect. That is the most difficult of the two to accomplish. Back in the 1980’s I was involved in creating a “Just In Time” program and was told by my manager that I should just do my best because, “This won’t work here. The Japanese have a cultural advantage”. Is that true? In a sense, yes, the Japanese through their long history had to be mindful of waste. Why? Because as a nation they have few natural resources, so they could not be wasteful. And Japan is a small nation, about the size of Montana, and mostly mountains. So the population is crowded together, therefore, they decided to treat each other well. With respect. So culturally they have an advantage and didn’t need to be trained on the core concepts. Toyota just started building the tools. But as a nation, America seems to have endless natural resources, so we waste them. We have vast territories, so if we don’t like our neighbors we just move. But is that really one of our traditions? No it is not, think of the frugality of our heritage. Think of our forefathers, they were so frugal that when they moved they burned down their buildings just to recover the nails. The best example we have today of frugality is the patchwork quilt. A beautiful work of art, made out of small pieces of fabric most people would throw away. Think of our Christian traditions, Jesus said we should love our enemies. Yet when we get work we gird ourselves for battle. So what is the problem here? Well frankly, when we leave to go to work we leave that all behind. So we must start our journey to Lean by training our employees to bring their best with them when they come to work. Several comments contained a fatal flaw (that is very unproductive), that of equating Lean with Toyota or Lean Six Sigma. The two pillars of Lean are what Toyota built their system on, Lean Six Sigma is the combination of TPS and Six Sigma. Which seems very odd, TPS says “don’t allow defects” as that is wasteful. So why would we marry a “Quality” program with TPS? We do it to get the tools. The Toyota tools and the Six Sigma tools. And they are great tools, but this is like giving a child the master’s toolbox. You are not going to know what to do with all of these beautiful tools, and you certainly will not be able to build a masterpiece. What you need to do is start with a couple of tools, master them, then add more tools as your skills increase. This is the toolbox you need to start with: start with a hammer (5S) and a saw (Value Stream Mapping). Master these two tools first. By mastering these first you will know not only which of the master’s tools to use next, but you will also be prepared to use them. Another common remark mentioned not only TPS but also muda. Japanese for "waste". Nearly every Lean program starts with teaching every employee Japanese. Why would anyone think learning Japanese first would be helpful? The terms are not easily remembered and some do not have a direct Japanese-English translation. So lets forget about using the Japanese terms of Muda, Mura, Muri, Poka-yokes, Kaizen, Kanbans, and Jidoka. Unless your workforce is Japanese, use English terms; Waste, Balance, Burden, Error Proof, Continuous Improvement, Cards, and Empowerment. When I started my Lean journey I started with Kanban so that term is second nature to me. When Taiichi Ohno (father of Just-In-Time and Kanban) toured the US he was impressed with Ford’s assembly line but saw its one fatal flaw, inflexibility. But on the same tour he also stopped at a supermarket and saw the reorder cards that were used to signal that a product needed restocked (they are still there, look for them). This simple innovation would allow him to take the Ford assembly line and add the flexibility that Toyota needed. Ohno found inspiration in the most unlikely of places. You will too: in your employees. Empower them, get them involved, and above all build your own (Your Company Name Here) Production System. Look for inspiration in the most unlikely of places. Read the histories of the pioneers to get a perspective. Lean was not invented by the Japanese it was adopted by them, then made into their own. Find out how and why they did it. I find my inspiration in two books, one is on waste and the other is on respect. I would encourage you to read them both. The book that I would recommend on waste is one of those “unlikeliest of places”, it is The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn. After you read this you will gain a fresh perspective on what waste really is and how to eliminate it. The book on respect that I would recommend comes from “the most likely of places”, the greatest personal relationship manual ever written, The Bible. It’s not just for Sunday morning anymore.

Harry Wood Senior Lean Facilitator

(c)Copyright 2009, Jeff 'SKI' Kinsey. All rights reserved.

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