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Mike Rother

Mike Rother: Our Evolving Understanding of Lean

By Mike Rother, Author of Toyota Kata and co-author of Learning to See - Last updated: Wednesday, November 24, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Question:  Do you agree with the characterization of Lean as eliminating waste?  Why or why not?”

I think the characterization of Lean as “eliminating waste” is too narrow. The question above, from Jerry Weinberg in the software development community, is an opportunity to expand our thinking.

Agile software development is about providing customer value through iteration and, you know what, that’s not too different from what Toyota is doing. If you want to get a process to function as described in a standard, or bring a Heijunka leveling pattern to operation, or make a Kanban system work as designed or achieve your future-state value stream map…  people are going to have to apply an iterative process to achieve that goal.

How we characterize Lean impacts how we think we should deploy Lean, and characterizing Lean as eliminating waste has led us down an ineffective path. For instance:

EXAMPLE:  Many of us gave responsibility for introducing lean to a lean promotion department or staff. This approach makes sense if we think lean is primarily about eliminating waste and implementing techniques like kanban, heijunka, cells, andon. After all, the people in the line functions are busy making product for the customer.

But if we see lean more as developing an iterative way of thinking and acting among line managers, then giving responsibility to a parallel staff department is not a good approach. (Don’t worry… members of lean staff departments are needed as coaches for the line managers.)

EXAMPLE:  If we think lean is primarily about eliminating waste, then 3-5 day Kaizen workshops are a reasonable technique for making leaps forward. But if we think lean is more about developing a different mindset, behavior and culture — which occurs via regular daily practice over a period of time — then episodic approaches such as workshops are not so appropriate for that. Workshops can be a great technique for helping to get closer to a technical target condition, but not so great for moving toward a mindset & behavior target condition.

I’m running into more and more people in the lean community who say that after 20 years of trying we still haven’t generated continuous improvement. And I think part of the reason is the sometimes narrow definition of Lean as eliminating waste. I agree with Art Smalley, who wrote here on The Lean Edge that, “I think it is best to be honest and admit that most characterizations of lean (or the Toyota Production System) are all lacking in general.” Art describes us as like the blind men around the elephant.

Let me build on Art’s point… we are all to some degree blind; there are always things we can’t yet see, and what we do see is filtered by the bias of our mindset. If we keep in mind that there is always an element of uncertainty then we will be more iterative in how we work. And that, in turn, will help us do a better job of learning about what Toyota is doing, and even to evolve Toyota’s approach. This table illustrates what I mean:

In other words, what is the best way to deal with uncertainty? Acknowledge it and develop a way of experimenting as a means for maneuvering through it.

Teach an iterative process, in other words.

Mike

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P.S. For more information on our evolving understanding of Lean, check out the following presentation:

The Evolution of Lean


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