Making Lean Stick – The Core Beliefs of Lean

By on July 9, 2012
The Core Beliefs of Lean

“Making Lean Stick” depends upon understanding this fact: Lean is more about what people believe than what people do.

As Fujio Chou, former President of Toyota Motor Corporation, observed, “Many good American companies have respect for individuals, and practice Kaizen and other Toyota Production System tools. But what is important is having all the elements together as a system. It must be practiced every day in a very consistent manner—not in spurts—in a concrete way on the shop floor.” He added, “Americans grab tools. At Toyota we concentrate on a philosophy.”
So what is the philosophy that is at the heart of Lean? What are the core beliefs that are at the heart of this philosophy? There are two that are absolutely crucial, these being:

  1. All work processes are imperfect.
  2. The people best qualified to improve work processes are the people who do the work.

Let’s consider some of the operational implications of these two beliefs.

First, all work processes are imperfect.

When this is believed, continually searching for ways to improve these work processes becomes the first order of business. Let me share a story about Toyota that really illustrates how folks behave when they believe that all work processes are imperfect. The story is about a Toyota plant manager who noticed on a walk through the plant that the standardized work instructions in one area hadn’t been changed for six months. He asked the supervisor in the area, “Why am I paying you a salary?” What was the point of this question? Simply this: That the supervisor’s prime responsibility wasn’t just keeping production going. The supervisor’s prime responsibility was improving work processes…continually…and if this hadn’t been done for six months, that meant that continuous improvement, a key component of Lean, wasn’t happening. This supervisor wasn’t earning his salary.

In his book about the Toyota management system, Managing to Learn, John Shook quotes a Ms. Newton who works at Toyota’s North American headquarters in Erlanger, KY, who said, “For Americans and anyone, it can be quite a shock to the system to actually be expected to make problems visible. Other corporate environments tend to hide problems from bosses.”

Looked at objectively, it seems obvious that hidden problems can’t morph magically into solved problems. Even though this is obvious, it’s amazing how many organizations act as if problems that aren’t obvious don’t exist. Given that we have to identify problems in order to solve them, the next question is who is going to come up with solutions to the problems that are identified? Here’s Lean’s answer to this question and the second key belief of Lean.

The people best qualified to improve work processes are the people who do the work.

Several years ago, a line worker in a plant in which I was doing consulting stopped me in their cafeteria and said, “George, I want to tell you a story. Last week, we were having a problem with some equipment in my area and the plant manager came out with some recommendations about how to solve the problem. After listening to him, I realized that there were some problems with his solution and mentioned them to him. He turned to me and said, ‘Just do what I’m telling you to do. I don’t pay you to think. I pay you to work.’ “He added, “George, what do you think about that?” I told him it sounded like the plant manager was having a bad day. Well, maybe so. It’s also clear that this plant manager didn’t hold strongly to the belief that his line workers, more than anyone else in the plant, knew how to improve work processes. If he did believe this, he wouldn’t have said “I don’t pay you to think” to the worker. One thing we know for sure and that is that line workers, given the opportunity, will become active and enthusiastic contributors to the improvement of work processes. Often, they are not given this opportunity.

Here are two quotes from the writings of Taiichi Ohno and Henry Ford that are directly relevant to the issues I’ve just discussed. I’d be very interested in your observations on the implications of Ohno’s and Ford’s statements.

“The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity. People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’ they go there to ‘think’” – Taiichi Ohno

“Quality means doing the right thing when no one is looking.” – Henry Ford

And if you’d like to be introduced to services we can provide that will make Lean stick in your organization, call me at 314-303-0612 and let’s talk.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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