As far as vices go my compulsive, obsessive fascination with the Civil War is probably one of the least harmful ones on which to waste an unjustifiable amount of time, money and energy. One observation I made from all of the rooting around old archives and tromping around old battlefields is that, had the people of the north known what they were getting into, it never would have happened. At the outset, the War was not defined as one aimed at freeing the slaves. Instead it was a patriotic endeavor with the goal of preserving the union. And the expectation was that it would be relatively bloodless, lasting a few months or so. Men joined the army to get in on the glorious adventure, much more so than to sacrifice their lives for a great moral cause.
Had anyone known that the War would last four years and that over 600,000 Americans would be dead before it ended; or had Lincoln defined it up front as he did at Gettysburg in 1863 as an ordeal necessary to put teeth into "the proposition that all men are created equal", few would have signed up for it. The magnitude of the investment in lives and treasure was enormous, and the benefits of putting an end to slavery and defining United States as a single entity were far too intangible to justify such a price. The War grew piece-meal, ramping up one battle and one event at a time until the purpose became clear, success became feasible, and the cost seemed worthwhile.
I have come to be convinced the lean journey is similar. Those of us who are lean purists and lean idealists, especially those of us who have been to the mountaintop and seen the other side – just how comprehensive the successful lean transformation must be – are perhaps too quick to criticize those organizations that initially see lean as the simple deployment of a few lean tools.
In Toyota Kata, Mike Rother compares the lean journey to a long flight of stairs, with problems lying on each step. From the bottom of the staircase it is impossible to see all of the problems or even how may steps there are. But as the problems are solved at each step, we rise and can see a little bit further up the staircase and we learn what the next problem is to address.
When we tell the organization right from the get-go that the flight of stairs is endless, and that to climb it a complete overhaul of how everyone thinks, and replacing every system in place will be necessary, all for benefits that are not easy to explain – largely because no one can really understand the benefits when they try to do so through the dysfunctional accounting and metrics lens we are looking to replace – we are met with resistance and skepticism, if not outright rejection.
An article in the Albany Times Union sings the praises of the lean commitment made by the governor and the state of Iowa, and urges the state of New York to do the same. It would be easy to scoff at the lean approach in Iowa: "Iowa has an Internal Office of Lean Enterprise that has completed 142 lean events … a law was signed requiring all executive agencies to undertake lean events." We know that no one can become lean simply by leaving the culture, systems and basic organization intact and simply running a bunch of lean events, then sending the participants back to the same old organization that created all of the problems the kaizen events aimed at fixing. This 'Kaizen Kowboy' approach to lean never accomplishes much.
Better to withhold judgment, however. What matters is that all of those events enable the folks in Iowa to climb another step, and see the next batch of problems. They still can't see the obstacles to excellence or the necessary solutions in their entirety, but they should now be seeing a little more than they could before. What matters is not whether they see and begin gorging on the whole elephant, but whether they see and commit to the need for taking the next bite. So long as they keep climbing the stairs one step at a time, they will be fine.
The problem with companies like GM and Delphi was not that they started off with a similar tools-based view of lean, but that they used those tools to climb and see deeper problems – then ignored them – rationalized their way out of addressing hem – opted to never climb higher than the tools took them. In fact, just about every organization begins with tools. There is no shame in that. The key is whether they use those tools to climb, or quit when they encounter the next obstacle.