Lean Was a Lot Simpler Back in the Day...

It’s another week in Leanville and there’s another new book professing to finally explain what lean is and the secrets of getting there. Just like last week, and the week before…and probably next week too. It’s been a couple of decades of lean for me now, and more and more it seems like lean was a lot simpler back in the day, when I was managing a...

It’s another week in Leanville and there’s another new book professing to finally explain what lean is and the secrets of getting there. Just like last week, and the week before…and probably next week too. It’s been a couple of decades of lean for me now, and more and more it seems like lean was a lot simpler back in the day, when I was managing a global systems business inside a large corporation. We had a dire need to improve dramatically, so we chose to expand that “lean thing” beyond manufacturing. Whatever lean was – we weren’t really sure.

The challenge (and now, I think, blessing) 20 years ago was that we didn’t have many resources to guide us. When we had a problem, we solved it the old-fashioned way – by rolling up our sleeves and actually solving it ourselves using hard work and science. It wasn’t always pretty at first, but we got the job done and solutions eventually became more elegant as our organization learned from itself. Nobody argued, or cared much for that matter, about what lean was or wasn’t because it was always destined to be what we made it.

Even by current standards, our results were impressive. New products were developed in half the time and produced with 30 percent less cost. From scratch, we created a sales and marketing process for quantifying customer value and calculating strategic pricing models. We streamlined our bottlenecked finance and purchasing operations, engaged our IT organization to improve delivery, and formed a management system to level-load global project and production work. Combined, it led to a double-digit improvement in operating income, while the organizational strategy and capability seeds we planted then are still paying off for the current leaders.

Today, however, many organizations struggling with lean seem to describe a systemic problem that we never faced. “So and so said this, but this other expert said that, and in that book, Mega-Lean Maniac, the author gave five different definitions of lean in the first 27 pages. Everyone is sooooo confused!” Whenever I hear “We’re failing because our leaders don’t support lean,” I wonder if the root cause is that many leaders are just as confused as everyone else and default to no action? Anyway, what happened to lean and why does it seem so much harder now? In my humble-but-not-claiming-expert opinion, I think it’s a combination of two factors.

First, lean is going through a natural cycle like most industries. Early adopters like us have few buying choices and are satisfied with simpler, more do-it-yourself approaches. But as more and more sellers (consultants/authors/experts) enter the market, there is a battle for attention, and that leads to overproduction and overpromotion. Experts have a business need to constantly produce something “new” while trying to differentiate from the others. And since few experts dare contradict what they said in the past, these new solutions are often ironically lumped on top of existing models. More tools, more processes, more complex explanations, and rarely is anything scientifically proven, much less debunked and thrown away.

Secondly, we had no choice but to make lean “situational” because there weren’t any books, classes, or consultants on management systems, Lean Purchasing, or how to schedule time in a test lab. When you don’t have an overabundance of resources and tools, you prioritize what’s truly critical for the business and solve those problems first. Hmmm…kind of like what Toyota did early on with TPS?

Those two factors did in fact make lean much simpler for us, and, as a result, much easier to adopt and adapt. More importantly, lean did exactly what we needed it to do and helped us meet our business objectives. This is not what many organizations experience today, despite orders of magnitude, greater resources, explanations, and examples.     

I realize there is great irony in suggesting ways for people to take charge and start thinking more for themselves. So instead, I am just going to share the questions I would ask my new-to-lean organization from 1997 – if somehow they were transported to today:

  1. Why are we trying so hard to become “textbook lean?” Instead shouldn’t we focus on becoming a better business? I just read a recent article about Honda executives admitting that their loss of “racing spirit” and innovation were the result of trying too hard to follow Toyota’s kaizen approach. If we really want a customer-focused, problem solving culture, then how can we solve more problems and serve our customers more? In fact, do you think we could better engage our people if we respectfully coached them to bring their own lean ideas to the table?
  2. What FEW strategic directions do we need to focus on – especially as we are trying to sort out this “lean thing?” What are the biggest strategic problems standing in the way of us becoming a better business? Aren’t those the most critical things to align our lean path with?
  3. How can we continuously simplify lean by subtracting things like tools, theories, and experts that don’t add value? Lean sounds positively overwhelming. How do we constantly make sure we aren’t overburdening our organization with too much non-value-added distraction?
  4. How will we embrace “situational lean?” Won’t our problems, our culture, our solutions, and our resulting lean journey look quite different than those companies in the books? How do we learn from them but not create an atmosphere where everyone feels like they have to copy them?
  5. How do we learn to teach ourselves? If lean is situational, and people learn best experientially, then how do we give our people more opportunities to hands-on learn in their own gemba while collaborating with their co-workers in other gembas?

Maybe I’m biased, but some of the best lean companies I’ve visited followed more of an 80 / 20 / 5x approach. They got 80 percent of the benefit of any technique with 20 percent of the effort (because they kept it simple), and that gave them the capacity to improve 5x the number of important things. They also found many different ways to share what they learned with their co-workers so new tools and processes worked within their existing systems and culture.

That’s what we did back in the day and it worked quite well. But these are all my questions and observations – what are yours for your unique situation? How can you simplify and “situationalize” lean to make it more successful inside your organization?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  culture,  lean musings
Source: www.lean.org