A Roadmap to Success or a Lesson on Map Reading?

There is much discussion about the “tool-centric” nature of today’s lean efforts.  This raises an important question about what is being emphasized with lean training, certification, and awards.  Does the widely-acknowledged problem with identifying bottom-line results mean that, rather than giving individuals a useful roadmap to achieve powerful results, they simply focus on the individual tools in the toolkit–emphasizing a generic set of skills?  In other words, are individuals simply taught how to read a map–and then left to their own devices to find the right map to read?

Based on the seemingly widespread acceptance of “experimentation” in implementing lean, this does appear to be the case.  Yet, now decades into the lean movement, shouldn’t more specific guidance on a structure for moving forward be given?

Lack of a clear roadmap seems to extend to lean hybrids as well–a possible cause for some of the problems pointed out in a blog post titled Continuous Improvement’s Continuous Mistakes.  The author describes concerns with many Lean Six Sigma (LSS) efforts, such as unstructured project selection, lack of financial or strategic emphasis, and using cost avoidance as a consideration to justify projects. 

With regard to selecting where to begin, too many lean efforts simply attack problems where they are seen–rather than first gaining an understanding of the broader dynamics that causes waste to accumulate in the first place (and will likely cause it to return–probably leading to the significant “backsliding” issue).  As far as financial and strategic thinking, I pointed out in Why Isn’t “Mainstream” Lean Working that many leading the lean movement have acknowledged that benefits aren’t reaching the bottom line–an indication that something is missing in their approaches.  I do take exception on the issue of cost avoidance, however–I think most companies would agree that it would matter if they could avoid the need to stock millions of dollars in inventories.

So, where is the roadmap?

Where lean often falls short is its application in complex, dynamic business settings.  As I found from my study of aerospace (clearly just such a business), there does exist a progression that lean efforts should take to see the best results at each step along the way, which I have described in my books and articles.  Moreover, there are great lessons from companies that have used a structured approach and have shown extraordinary results.  Perhaps it is time to stop promoting the application of meandering “continuous improvement” programs, in favor of a structured approach to measureable gains on the way to sustainable transformation of the business.

Is it time to move beyond “lean”? Or is going lean most urgently needed right now?

In retrospect, there seem to be a number of indications that a business improvement approach has run its course, such as a proliferation of articles, books, etc. looking forward to the next big thing.  We’ve all seen titles like “beyond TQM,” “beyond reengineering,” “beyond Toyota,” or “beyond whatever was hot at the time,” espousing some new tool, system, or methodology–often based on many of the core elements of the one it proposes to replace. 

Why point this out?  Because it seems to be happening again

Today there appears to be a growing push for going “beyond lean.”  Perhaps this reflects a frustration with the tool-centric approach that has come to represent anything termed “lean,” or the confusion this creates about where to start  (see my previous post, Determining Where to Start: A Key Decision for Going Lean).  Or perhaps it comes from a growing recogintion that today’s efforts have simply failed to deliver on their promise (see my post, Where are the Lean Companies?).  This is not to say that lean has failed; its principles are as valid as they were when they were introduced decades ago.  What has fallen short are the popular methods of implementing it .  As I have written before, the way its tools and practices are put in place can minimize results, lock out some of it greatest benefits, and trivialize its intent–thus undermining workforce support.

Steven Spear pointed out the problem on in his post, “Womack’s ‘Beyond Toyota’ is the wrong challenge… ‘beyond lean’ is”.  His focus seems to be that the tool-centric approach that is commonly refered to as “lean” represents an overly simplistic view of what the benchmarks of lean really accomplish.  He then points to the need for moving beyond lean as a way of getting to what lean benchmarks really demonstrate.  However, the vision he describes is not different than lean, but what going lean really is (or what I refer to as lean dynamics–a different way of looking at lean that represents its true depth and breath.)

Today’s is the right time for going lean–but only if lean is recognized as far more than the tool-centric programs so many have come to associate it with.  Rather than throw it out and leap to the next big thing, it’s time to take a deeper look at the powerful lessons companies and institutions have accumulated as they struggled to put in place–and to implement it in a way that takes full advantage of what they have shown us.  For instance, rather than directly pursuing its most visible outcomes, why not shift to operating using a very different way of doing business that prevents the disruption that traditionally strikes during times of uncertainty and disruption–conditions that now affect organizations everywhere?  The benchmarks of lean show the powerful results of doing this:  greater stability, profitiability, innovation, and opportunities–and, yes, the most widely sought-after outcomes of lower costs and higher quality.

You can read about how lean can be implemented to create these intended results in my new book, The Going Lean Fieldbook: A Practical Guide to Lean Transformation and Sustainable Results. Or check back here over the next couple of weeks for more posts on this topic .