The world of lean is grappling with sharp illogic that is creating rumblings among the ranks. And uneasiness in the board room. The chickens of the inconsistency and muddled thinking of the past three decades have come home to roost. On the one hand, some of us see lean as a known and knowable destination, closely defined and achievable through a tight formulaic sequence of application. Others of us hold that lean has become synonymous with continuous improvement—or as Jones and Womack stated it, “the pursuit of perfection.” This is lean as a never-ending process, coterminous with continuous improvement, and without a hard edge.
This muddle-ness troubles me because I am a practitioner with allegiance to two worlds—but maybe not the two you think. One is the world of what works: What helps companies actually move forward, stay in business, succeed, forge ahead— a world of practical inputs and knowable outputs. The other is the world of words and meaning: What things mean; how terms are defined; how meaning adjusts and lends us strength; how meaning can erode and throw us off track; and how definitions can get us back again.
The dilemma of the two leans is the result of another set of twos: a type of democracy of actual use (and the inevitable adaptations that must follow) and a definitions free-for-all. No single entity is in charge of either. No high priest (or priestess) can declare which is correct and which is not. From my vantage point, there is no way to unravel this Gordian knot of competing definitions and outcomes.
And so I suggest the following in the manner of Alexander the Great. Why not skip the unraveling of this muddle and cut to the chase (pun intended). Pick up the sword of discernment, swing high, and then let the blade fall and slice the entanglement—with this single question:
The answer cannot be a canned response. It must be derived from what you know about your company and what it needs. That will lead you to select an improvement technology designed to meet that need and achieve that growth. The same answer shows you how to spend (re-deploy) the resources released by the success of the improvement technology you selected.
Addressing this single question on the front side is pivotal and can hold many surprises and insights that will prevent you from putting your foot upon an improvement pathway that is wrong for the enterprise—or an improvement pathway for its own sake. As importantly, this question protects you from getting caught in the provocative and nearly unanswerable question of the moment: “Are there limits to lean?” Or “Does lean mean this—or does it mean that?” It permits you, instead, to stay focused on your own company’s wealth and well-being and the path for moving forward. Growth.
In far too many cases, a company’s progress has been referred to a tick-box protocol of application options—the application of a list of tools and (more recently) a list of principles. It is hard to argue with lists because so many companies have enjoyed either some—or some more—benefit by ticking off boxes. So much to do. So little time.
But look at the many places the gurus and pundits suggested as “the right” starting box: first implement cellular design; first build your training competency; first implement employee empowerment; first create a team of certified CI Specialists; first achieve organizational readiness; first be humble; first set up your improvement infrastructure and/or standard work and/or 5S and/or senior and middle managers commitment and/or develop a strategic improvement plan—and so on.
You know this list. The fact remains that no one thing is of prime importance. They are all important, nearly equally. Where and how do we begin? And where and how do we continue? What is the starting gate? Where is the finish line? Good questions. Tough questions. And yet, when you ask any of these companies what they are doing, they are likely to say that they are doing one thing: lean. But are they? Next week, I’ll share a case study that turned lean-as-defined on its head.