I hope everyone has had a chance to read the last few post Mike Wroblewski has put up over at Get Boondoggle, along with the comments he has received, especially one by a fellow named Chet Frame. Their view of lean implementation carries a lot of weight – they reflect mainstream lean thinking. They also reflect the approach to lean that has not been too successful over the last two decades. I also hope you gave my last post, Lean Manufacturing, a good read.
As I spent the morning reflecting on how to craft a response, I had one fall into my lap, compliments of a lean thinker named Bryan Lund from Energizer. Responding to a wide open question concerning the future of lean posted on NWLean, Bryan wrote:
"A select number of companies will "get it" by researching the history of TPS and understanding why TPS is what it is today, by educating themselves and through deep experiential reflection. Those companies will be the most successful in the world. The bulk of the companies in the world will continue to apply the tools, always scratching the surface, never knowing what is at the heart of TPS."
He said it perfectly. The lean community can continue to ignore the messy, complicated business systems, economic model and thorny management complications that underlie the current factory practices, or face them head on. It is certainly much easier to ignore them and simply go out and launch a kaizen project at whatever seems to be a problem in the current model. As Mr. Frame said, it is easy to see results if you go into a black room and simply start spraying white in any direction. It is much harder to try to figure out how the room that should be white got to be black in the first place, and to see to it that it does not go back to being black as soon as you finish with your white paint. For that matter, it is easier to ignore the question of whether you are even in the right room to begin with.
It is also easy, as Mr. Frame suggests, to simply ignore accounting issues. It is easy to just write things off to some inevitable, unsolvable, mysterious difference between Japanese management and culture and American management and culture. That ignores the fact that most Japanese companies are not very lean at all, but it is an easy rationalization.
I view this whole debate as Mike and Chet saying it doesn’t matter what blueprint you use to build a house. If you use Shingo’s hammers and saws, instead of Frederick Taylor and Ollie Wight’s, you will build a Toyota house no matter what blueprint you use. I think the blueprint happens to be the key to the whole thing. You can use the Toyota tools all day long, but if you are not using the right blueprint, you will not build the right house. Art Smalley is right. You can pretty much ignore the standard Toyota tools and, as long as you understand and follow the Toyota blueprint, you will build the right house.
Failure to thoroughly understand how all of the vastly complicated, tightly integrated physical, human and economic variables inherent in manufacturing work together, and how cycle time comes closest to measuring that interrelationship, can only lead, as Mr. Lund so eloquently put it, to continued application of "the tools, always scratching the surface, never knowing what is at the heart of TPS." It will also perpetuate the 98%+ failure rate Clifford Ransom discussed.
The strongest proof of the emptiness of the tool centered approach to lean that has been so widely promoted, and that Mike is advocating, is the character of American manufacturing management. When you believe that using all of the Toyota tools is the essence of lean, the explanation for the near universal failure to achieve bottom line results always boils down to poor management character – lack of leadership, failure to respect people, middle management resistance, blah, blah, blah.
Only I know better and so do you. We have worked with these people. We know thousands of American managers, working and retired, at virtually every level of manufacturing. They are not stupid. They are not uncaring. Many of them are the most respected and generous leaders in their communities. Blaming their character is insulting and intellectually lazy. Leading the pack of those who write off the failure of the lean tool centered approach to the intellectual and moral weakness of American managers is Mr. Massaki Imai, founder of the Kaizen Institute, and the expert Mike quotes in support of his point of view.
With all due respect to Mr. Imai and the Kaizen Institute – I was a Kaizen Institute student and I learned much from the experience – they have been in business for twenty years and their customers have failed to become lean at the bottom line in proportions similar to manufacturing in general. Mr. Imai has been quick and vocal in attributing this to the poor character of American managers, and the success of Toyota to the superior character of Japanese managers.
[American] "Managers often avoid going to gemba because they don’t want to be embarrassed by their ignorance."
"Japanese companies developed a very effective system of management, particularly in the manufacturing sectors, and the rest of the world has much to learn from these practices."
That, is what Mr. Imai of the Kaizen Institute has to say – launch a kaizen effort at anything that looks like a problem and, if it does not turn you into Toyota, it is because you are more ignorant than a Japanese manager. Mr. Imai thinks his customers are the problem. He and the other lean ‘experts’ should quit blaming the customers of the lean message for the failure of a tool centered lean message to provide them with bottom line results.
Mike would like to "avoid debates and arguments about lean like this one and just start improving." Twenty years of kaizen have not improved much in American factories. Manufacturing is in trouble. Rather than avoid the debate, I think we better broaden and step up the intensity of it before we run out of time, starting with the fact that the widespread message that the old formula of Kaizen + Lean Thinking = Lean has a twenty year track record of failure in America.