This is the all or nothing question, so I’ll go all in! Lean is unique, lean is different. I have to confess I published four business books before specializing in lean. None of them very good, I fear. In youthful folly I believed in the value of reading the business books literature, cherry picking the best insights and trying to put it all together again, trusting that the assemblage would contribute to… something. As I’d discovered TPS early on, there was a smattering of lean in all of them: Deming, JIT, etc. But until I wrote The Gold Mine with my father I just didn’t get it.
I now believe lean is something else altogether, and that Lean Thinking is the single most important contribution to the puzzle of the human use of human beings since Drucker’s Concept of the Corporation and Practice of Management, and before him Barnard, Fayol or Taylor. There are three fundamental contributions of lean thinking that do not appear in any other management books: an original industrial vision, a management method and years of kaizen praxis.
Several business books have, over the years, touched upon Just In Time in a generic way, such as Stalk and Hout’s Competing against time, but none have detailed the full JIT industrial vision of controlling and reducing lead-time, not just short lead-time, and the relationship between takt time and capital expenditure which is conveyed in lean. This might not be the most discussed topic, but it’s absolutely core to what Toyota has been doing, from the rhythm of launching new cars, to managing operations by the operational ratio. I believe the best description I know in English can be found in Hino’s inside the mind of Toyota.
On the management method front, many writers have come up with general principles, such as Collins or Covey. Sure, “getting the right people on the bus” is helpful, and probably true, but that’s as far as it goes. Whereas I know some CEOs that use “go and see, challenge, kaizen, teamwork and respect” as a fully-fledged coherent way to manage their business.
Furthermore, although Masaai Imai breakthrough kaizen books showed the impact of continuous improvement, without the overall method of lean thinking, these small steps can easily be a random walk. When I talked to him, he mentioned he was working on a third tome on flow, synchronicity and leveling – the JIT element needed to make kaizen become a game changer.
Finally, there have been plenty of books around knowledge management, but few have gone beyond Nonaka and Takeuchi’s knowledge-creating general principles into how this is done. Indeed, Takeuchi has co-authored Extreme Toyota and Nonaka, Managing Flow. Developing deep knowledge hasn’t been a full lean topic until Mike came up with his brilliant Toyota Kata book, but it has been a key component of lean practice all along.
Occasionally, some business writers have intuited all four elements, such as Richard Pascale in his great Managing On the Edge, but these have been few and far between and have failed to capture the system “dimension” of lean which Jim and Dan offered with Machine and Lean Thinking. Until Jeff started systematically writing about the Toyota Way, no one had quite figured the full SCOPE of what we were seeing. Interestingly, every new Liker book brings new insights into what is a complete business model. Toyota Under Fire has been an eye-opener about how lean thinking is enacted in a dire crisis and I can’t wait to see the final version of Jeff’s next book on Lean Leadership.
I realize I sound like I’m preaching with the fervor of the newly converted but the sad truth is I have been a very slow convert. I first heard of JIT during a lego-brick game presented by an Australian consultant called Rex Honey back in the early nineties, which led me to understand some of what my own father, Freddy Ballé was going on about – and had been since the early eighties. I studied Toyota engineers working at a supplier for my doctoral dissertation and was both fascinated and mystified, but still didn’t get it.
Oddly enough it was all there in the original 1977 Sugimori et al. TPS paper: Just-in-time and Respect-for-human. We’re just still trying to figure out what “all” exactly means.
All this to say that I feel there have been many great management books such as Good to Great or Fifth Discipline and so on, but all remain within the original Taylor/Fayol/Ford/Sloan paradigm of doing business. On the other hand, one could argue that no lean book so far has ever become a great business book (other maybe than Lean Thinking and Toyota Way), but this is because nothing is harder than shifting from one paradigm to the next. We must continue to explore the field opened by Toyota and to submit our findings to the grump factor: peer reviewed and repeated experiments outside of Toyota to discover what this “lean” thing really is. What is certain is that, so far, it offers the best hope to build business better adapted to a turbulent, complex and knowledge driven XXIst century.
Emphatically, I believe that “excellence” writers bring great insights in exploring the traditional business mindset, but are not particularly relevant to lean thinking – although they do write splendid books. I also believe that most lean writers struggle with exploring a new field, which doesn’t make it easy to write a great business book. So, yes, lean adds something fundamentally new, but it’s so new we’re going to have to keep working for a further few decades until we get it down pat to the level of the seven habits of lean managers – or would it be eight? Nine?
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