Do We Need to Re-Think How We Think?

Do We Need to Re-Think How We Think?

In my previous post, I covered the “what” that underlies a “production system” (“production” is not “manufacturing”, but “manufacturing” can be “production”) and emphasized that it is the people and their thinking, the “who”, that makes the system function. Now the challenge is to uncover “how” that thinking, and “what” kind of thinking, can make the production system not just function, but function well. And a well-functioning production system is one that provides value to the customer. The system and its people are the means and customer value is the end.

And, as outlined in my “What Is Lean”, “What is Waste” and “The Lean River System” series, a Lean production system must also be able to provide that value with a minimum or optimized expenditure of resources (energy).

But why are we going to spend time on “thinking”? We know “what” Lean is, we know “how” Lean works and we have the beginnings of an understanding of “why” Lean works. What more do we need? Let’s just do it!

While I wholeheartedly agree that “let’s just do it” is a very worthwhile strategy, I also know, from what I have been reading lately, that “let’s just do it” strategy is generating around a 75% failure rate in today’s world. Why is that happening? I know that wasn’t the case when I was practicing JIT and TPS in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

So what’s different? I wish I knew for sure. But this is my blog, so I’m going to throw caution to the wind and just guess.

My first guess: today’s Lean movement is much bigger than the JIT/TPS crowd in my early days and, as a result, there are a lot of people out there who just don’t know what they are doing. They don’t know the “what”, “how” and “why”. They get a group of people together, call it a “Lean team”, and run around looking for something to improve. And if they find “waste” they get rid of it, somehow.

But I also know that there are a whole lot of people out there who do know the “what”, “how” and maybe the “why”. Are they always successful? No. Why not?

My second guess: the people who “know” have a very hard time getting other people to “know”. Real Lean is a production system, and that system requires a lot of people that “know”.

A production system operates through human action, and human action is realized through countless, innumerable, human decisions. And human decisions are made by all humans in the system, not just those at the top. And since most humans are not at the top, most decisions are not made at the top. Do all these people “know”?

Uh-oh! Time out! If this is the case, then I never would have had the success in JIT/TPS/Lean that I did right from the beginning and over the years. And I “knew” very little at the beginning. But I, and those around me, did know enough to see that this was different and it made sense. What was it that we did know?

My third guess: this guess can be summed up pretty well by a quote from the humorist Josh Billings:

“I’d rather know a little less than to know so much that isn’t so”

This is somewhat of an offshoot from my first guess. The Lean movement is so large today that there are just too many people coming at it from too many different perspectives with too many different purposes. The basics have been amended so many times that the whole thing has become unrecognizable.

As an example, Google “image of TPS House” and see all the various concoctions that have been created over the years. Buzzword heaven!

Bob Emiliani presents one perspective to this problem in a blog post from 2015. He calls it the “Lean-Industrial Complex”. He’s even created a logo for it:

Lean-Industrial-Complex - Emiliani - lic-300x130

There are many groups of “experts” out there that give the impression that Lean is just too complex for anyone to figure out by themselves. But they can help! Just buy one of their overpriced books, or better yet, just hire them to come in and fix everything.

Emiliani has his own answer to this growing problem:

“The Lean-industrial complex has become very influential on a subject that you could figure out all by yourself. You need only two things: The spark of an idea – flow – and the brain between your ears to figure out how to make flow happen in your organization.”

But he then goes on to say that you may need to buy a good book to help you along (and he has quite a few out there). But we’ll ignore that for now because his initial statement is on the money.

Which brings us back to the very first post I published on this blog where I developed this Lean principle from the basic (original) TPS House:

Thus the underlying principle behind TPS/Lean is the systemic creation of the shortest possible lead time for the continuous flow of materials and information in order to generate the highest quality and lowest cost.

I also followed this principle with this statement:

“At its core, this is “What Lean Is”! No more, no less. But it is the foundation as to why Lean works. (I will cover the interrelationship between “lead time” and “quality” and “cost” in greater detail in future posts). Please note that I have emphasized the word “systemic”. This principle applies to the system as a whole – not to the sum of its parts. This is an important distinction that I will also address later.”

It all revolves around “flow”. And, fortunately, I understood “flow” right at the beginning of my journey. I had acquired Emiliani’s “spark of an idea” from the JIT/TPS community at the time. And so did the people I worked with. It is an idea that, once conceptualized, makes everything else fit together nicely. And it is an idea that everyone can grasp.

But I will have to admit that the people at the bottom grasp it more easily than the people at the top. They can see it right in front of them. Maybe that’s why it works!

So think “flow” and think “systemic”. If you can visualize “flow” throughout your entire “system”, the rest will fall into place. I have emphasized these two concepts in all of my posts subsequent to that first one. And I will continue to do so – it is very fertile soil from which to grow things. (I also touched on the relationship between lead time and cost in some of those posts).

If you want a Lean production system – have everyone think “flow”. It truly is a magic word.


2 thoughts on “Do We Need to Re-Think How We Think?

  1. I certainly agree with Mr. Emiliani about the “Lean establishment”(whatever that is) wanting to control the practice of Lean so they can control the its revenue stream. I also agree with you regarding the skill level of practitioners, i.e. my “experts” and “all the rest” categorization. What I’m not so sure about is that when “all the rest” understand the fundamentals of Lean this will suffice to make them “expert” (or even competent) practitioners. More structure to the practice is needed. Certainly a standard metric for lead-time is needed (either MCT or something else). Certainly a guide for Lean Practitioners on how Lean should/will impact specific executive level metrics. I could go on and on. Bottom line is this. The “small guys” really can’t afford to either have an “expert” on staff or to hire a consultant to come in and do Lean for them. And the ones they might be able to afford are probably from the “all the rest” category. I believe we need to focus on structuring Lean Practice (NGL) on what the small firms need to be able to successfully apply Lean with their current staff — and remember, no-one is “sitting on the bench” at small manufacturers waiting to be called into the game. People who work at these places have to do Lean (at least initially) on top of their regular jobs, which is keeping the factory running.

    1. “Small guys” (or “large guys” for that matter) do not need to hire anybody to successfully become Lean. Let’s look at Emiliani’s quote again:

      The Lean-industrial complex has become very influential on a subject that you could figure out all by yourself. You need only two things: The spark of an idea – flow – and the brain between your ears to figure out how to make flow happen in your organization.

      The “spark of an idea” and the “brain between your ears” are free. In my many decades of JIT/TPS/Lean transformations, I never once hired an “expert” or a consultant. I did hire a consultant once to help me understand how to form and manage “teams”, but never for learning TPS, etc. fundamentals.

      In my very first effort to implement JIT in the late 80’s, I had two things: 1) my desire to involve employees at all levels and 2) a Production Manager who owned and had read Richard J. Schonberger’s book “World Class Manufacturing”. That was it. Our first effort was to convert an entire production operation into a simple manufacturing cell. We freed up 90% of the former manufacturing floor space and, most importantly, learned what “flow” meant. If you can’t “see” flow in a U-shaped cell, you really need to find another line of work. And we did this over one weekend! And with the exception of some overtime pay for our facilities and maintenance crew, it was “free”.

      That “spark of an idea” generated many more “sparks” and the plant steadily became “Lean”. And no one considered this effort to be anything other than their “regular jobs”. And to top it off, everyone had “fun”. Learning can be fun!

      (In retrospect, I should have included this story in my above post).

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