Who Does the Thinking Around Here Anyway?

Who Does the Thinking Around Here Anyway?

Up to this point I have tried to build a basic foundation for understanding “where” Lean comes from, “what” Lean is, “how” Lean works, and hopefully begin to generate some understanding of “why” Lean works. If we don’t have a very good grasp of all of these concepts, we will have a very hard time tackling the next, and probably most important, key component of a successful Lean transformation.

And that key component is: “who” makes Lean work.

But if you don’t understand the “what”, “how” and, hopefully, “why”, then understanding the “who” can become very tricky, if not impossible. Think of some stressful situation you have experienced at work involving other people. Do the terms “firefighting” and “finger pointing” come to mind? Do these questions ever pop up?

  • Who did this?
  • Who thought of this?
  • Who is responsible?
  • Who knows how to fix this?
  • Who can we talk to about this?
  • Why did they do this?
  • What went wrong?

The “they” in the next to last question also indicates a lack of knowledge of “who”. But the “what” in the last question indicates the beginnings of a return to normalcy. If you don’t know the “what”, you cannot know the “how” and “why” or the “who”.

From what I’ve read and heard, Toyota seems to be a very good example of an organization that does not have a “who” problem. They have a system – the “Toyota Production System” (TPS). And that system seems to work pretty well in defining the “who”. But what exactly is this “production system” thing?

Excuse me for a moment while I bore you. From Wikipedia:

“A system is a set of interacting or interdependent component parts forming a complex/intricate whole. Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning.”

OK it’s over. Sorry about that. But I want to focus on a couple of key components of this definition.

First, it mentions “interacting or interdependent component parts”. Notice that it does not say “independent” component parts. That goes back to the expression I’m sure you’ve heard many times: “a system is more than the sum of its parts”.

In other words, you can’t improve just one part of a system and expect the system as whole to necessarily improve. The system could actually get worse. The parts are “interacting or interdependent”. Change one thing and you can change a lot of things. It’s called “unintended consequences”.

And what are parts? In TPS, the parts include, well parts – engines, bumpers, seats, windows, radio, A/C, etc., etc. But parts also include equipment, machines, buildings, electrical gizmos, robots, production schedules, other paper, more paper, etc., etc. But the most important parts, the parts that allow all the other parts to mean something, the parts that make this whole system thing work, these parts are human beings – people. The “who”!

The second thing to focus on is the statement that the system is “described by its structure and purpose”. So what is the structure and purpose of TPS? Well, that comes down to the adjective “production”. The structure and purpose of the Toyota Production System is “production”.

So what is “production”? “Production” does not mean: “that department out back, where those guys, those guys with the machines and stuff, work”. “Production” does not mean “manufacturing” although manufacturing is definitely a subset of “production”.

Production is a means to an end. And it is the end that is the important part. The end is some “thing” that has value to another living being. It can be tangible such as an automobile, a coat, shoes, a book, a movie, a song, etc. Or it can be intangible such as an experience (think Disney), a feeling (from that song), etc. And production is the means of providing that “thing” of value – of value to a customer.

So a “production system” is a system for providing value to a customer. And it does that by having people interact with the other parts of the system to create that value. People are the drivers of the system.

All output and change in a “production system” can only occur through human action. A “production system” is defined by the decisions that are made by the people within that system. Not some of the people – all of the people. All the parts that think, interacting with all the other parts that think. The “who”.

I think it may be time for another quote by Taiichi Ohno:

“Why not make the work easier and more interesting so that people do not have to sweat? The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity. People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’ they go there to ‘think’.”

I think he understands “production system”.

Science is a wonderful thing and science has shown that arteries carry about 20 to 25 percent of your blood to your brain, where billions of cells use about 20 percent of the oxygen and fuel your blood carries. And when you are thinking hard, your brain may use up to 50 percent of the fuel and oxygen in that blood flow.

So why have we, for so long a time, only looked at some people for the muscle energy they provide to our operational systems? Why would we ignore, and not take advantage of, that other potential 50% of human energy that exists in all human brains, no matter what job we have originally asked them to do? Why? Why waste energy?

There is that word “waste” again!

But in order for all that potential mental energy to provide the proper value from the system to the customer, everyone must understand “what” the Lean “system” is designed to do and “how” it provides that value.

I would recommend going back to my three part series “What is Lean” and try to put the “who” in context as you read through my description and analysis of the “Toyota Production System”.

Thinking about the “who” adds another dimension to the analysis. Toyota has figured this out. They call it “The Toyota Way”.

2 thoughts on “Who Does the Thinking Around Here Anyway?

  1. I am looking forward to reading your thoughts about people management in a Lean culture. I have two basic philosophies regarding people management. First, if an employee is motivated, there will be an important role they can fill. In other words, its is management’s job to find the best match between role and employee and facilitate it. Second, all employees have an area of expertise where they know more than anyone else. Because of this they need to be listened to. I’ve tried to apply these same principles to managing suppliers.

    1. I was attracted to “JIT” in the late 80’s (that’s what TPS was commonly known as then, at least in the U.S.) not to reduce costs but to learn about “employee involvement”. I had heard about JIT’s requirement to heavily involve all employees in their continuous improvement methodology. That was also my goal. Once I jumped in, there was no going back. As you read on, you will find that the Toyota Way’s “Respect for People” is a primary focus of my Lean philosophy. This is the first post where I start to introduce this philosophy. But you need to thoroughly understand the basic Lean/TPS principles before you can properly involve employees in a manner that is beneficial both to the employees themselves and to the organization as a whole. That is why I started this blog with a focus on the basics. As you read on, I think you will find that your two basic philosophies of management work very well in this environment.

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