Over the past year I’ve given Dr. Shahrukh Irani of Ohio State a pretty hard time, especially in the post The False God of the Almighty Algorithm. Dr. Irani is a major proponent of software solutions, but as someone who fundamentally believes in excellence through simplicity and the beauty and elegance of simple solutions, I prefer white boards and manual visual methods. In my opinion software is often like conveyors or six sigma… it can speed up or optimize a wasteful process instead eliminating the underlying waste itself.
On his JSLEAN Yahoo group, Dr. Irani is also vociferous with regards to questioning fundamental aspects of "Toyota lean." He believes that "TPS is just a rehash of common sense" and "lean is just a smorgasborg of tools." I disagree rather strongly, and believe that what Toyota, Ohno, and Shingo created out of the concepts originally developed by Ford, Deming, and others goes much, much deeper… it’s a fundamental business philosophy. Core aspects, such as the oft-forgotten "respect for people", are not tools and certainly can’t be modeled by software.
However my recent post on Toyota Questions Everything got me to thinking that my own exhuberance in defending lean was actually detrimental and contrary to the lean philosophy itself. Just like Toyota, a true lean company questions every aspect of their business and operating methods, including the most core components. Therefore the questions and comments from smart people like Dr. Irani should be encouraged, discussed, and used to help create further improvement. I have a sneaking suspicion that this discussion, analysis, and application is what helps Ohio State create some great manufacturing engineers. As Bill wrote early this year, low tuition plus good football equals a useful education… and he included Dr. Irani and Ohio State in the select group that blows away the likes of Wharton with regards to true manufacturing knowledge.
Coincidentally our friend Jon Miller at Gemba Panta Rei wrote about a similar subject yesterday in a post titled Being an Improvement Agnostic. As he put it,
I have no certain conclusions Lean manufacturing is "the way", except through direct experience. It would be foolish of me to claim that Lean manufacturing should come before any of the other "beliefs" such as ERP, CRM or Six Sigma without first seeing what an organization needs most and understanding the available solutions.
Being an improvement agnostic means not holding to a particular system of belief too strongly if it has not been demonstrated or if they are not demonstrable. Test the null hypothesis, in other words. Follow reason to its natural conclusion, regardless of what we want to believe as fans of kaizen and the Toyota Production System.
I don’t know that there is a perfect process, or that we can ever know the perfect process. I have a strong hunch that it does not exist today (except perhaps in nature) and that I may never see it. I don’t have an unshakable faith that Lean manufacturing works, only belief from demonstrated experience.
The story that drove Jon’s thoughts is a good read, and something many of us have been through. I know lean works because I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen the rather astounding results, and I’ve felt the fundamental elegance, simplicity, and common sense in the methods. People like Norm Bodek have helped us understand the human aspects that in many respects transcends western business thought and priorities.
Lean, and "Toyota Lean" can definitely help pretty much any organization create incredible improvements. Even Toyota, which many claim to be a decade further advanced in efficiency than their nearest competitor, believes they have just begun to scratch the surface. The danger is that because implementing lean is very hard work requiring very serious commitment, lesser-hearted leaders and organizations will just look for another, easier way instead of taking advantage of the established improvement potential of lean. We see this every day with failures resulting from half-hearted or complete misapplication of lean. This is why some of us may jump too quick to squelch lean dissenters… we know real lean can really work.
But does that mean it’s the only way? Of course not. I harbor no illusions that lean is the end-all business process. Lean, and more globally "enterprise management" must continually improve, and we must encourage discussion in order to further the improvement process. Although Dr. Irani and I and many others may have differing opinions, I’m sure we all share a fundamental passion to help manufacturers succeed.