What’s the problem you are trying to solve?

Way too often organizations are pursuing the benefits of the Toyota Production System or Lean Enterprise by trying to imitate or copy others. While there is value in understanding what others have done, company and continuous improvement leaders should recognize their own uniqueness and culture and develop countermeasures to their own business problems, not someone else’s.

In this sense, TPS or Lean is more about the “thinking process” and not about the tools. If you study the history, you will find the real problem that Toyota was trying to solve was one of cash and growth.

After World War II the country of Japan was devastated. There were little natural resources, cash was drained to fund the war and businesses had to re-build. Taiichi Ohno understood that inventory in their situation was evil and that the business could not grow and prosper without cash.

At Toyota Motor Company, Ohno and Shigeo Shingo, began to incorporate Ford production and other techniques into an approach called Toyota Production System or Just In Time . They recognized the central role of inventory. The Toyota people also recognized that the Ford system had contradictions and shortcomings, particularly with respect to employees. With General Douglas MacArthur actively promoting labor unions in the occupation years, Ford’s harsh attitudes and demeaning job structures were unworkable in post-war Japan. They were also unworkable in the American context, but that would not be evident for some years. America’s “Greatest Generation” carried over attitudes from the Great Depression that made the system work in spite of its defects. Toyota soon discovered that factory workers had far more to contribute than just muscle power. This discovery probably originated in the Quality Circle movement. Ishikawa, Deming and Juran all made major contributions to the quality movement. It culminated in team development and cellular manufacturing.1

Going lean, then, is less about “leaning out” every business process or applying well-known tools to achieve lean performance metrics. Instead lean is more about learning to see problems and engaging people to solve them the “right” way. By focusing on a thinking, seeing, doing model, organizational muscle, problem-solving capacity and skill of all members of the organization is developed. Tools follow thinking and seeing—and are implemented with purpose and systems thinking. Results then follow.

So why is this approach different? Starting with tools tends to focus on the how and leave the more important why and what out of the equation. As a result, organizations blindly implement lean tools with little chance for sustainment. In the end, applying lean tools to every process is limited in results and may not support sustainment. Such an approach can drive real improvement, however in many instances, these improvements are, blind to the waste they cause elsewhere in the business, and typically fade as key leaders move on in the organization. By tapping into, and developing the creativity of every employee, you create real potential for change. This change will happen at the grass roots which means people are solving their real problems and sustainment becomes natural versus managed.

Ultimately this enables the core principle of lean—kaizen—to take root at the lowest levels of work across the organization as people learn, do and build capability. Realizing the full promise of lean requires that the thinking and seeing processes are developed at all levels in the organization.2

1 Strategos

2 Adapted from THE THINKING PRODUCTION SYSTEM by Michael Ballé, Godefroy Beauvallet, Art Smalley, Durward Sobek

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