One question that I hear a lot is, “Can you show me an example of success in my specific environment?” with lean, continuous improvement, agile and so forth. My most common answer is, “No.” Although I would like to be helpful, the number of “specific environments” in the world far outnumbers the examples of success therein. As a result, industries and environments in which success examples do exist tend to adopt proven models sooner, widening the gap. However, this situation doesn’t concern me. In fact, I have found that seeing examples of success in a very similar environments can even be counterproductive. This is because people tend to focus on the familiar when they see success in similar environments – products, processes, equipment, software, customers – rather than looking with an open mind for what is different and remarkable. Often these are not things but behaviors, i.e. how we interact with things and with other people.
Even in the best of circumstances, when a good example of success in a very similar industry and environment exists, and people are well-primed to observe and learn from good practices, copying successfully is far from guaranteed. What happens when we attempt to copy examples of lean successes from other companies?
Dr. Deming admonished,
To copy an example of success, without understanding the success with the aid of theory may lead to disaster. Any rational plan, however simple, is prediction concerning conditions, behavior, performance of people, procedures, equipment, materials.
In the context of lean management, “the aid of theory” means that those who are studying an example of success with intent to copy must first thoroughly understand how lean management achieves what it achieves, in theory. This is a fairly tall order, involving broad knowledge of systems, operations, human psychology, statistics, and more. However, it is not necessary to understand all, since only the most foolhardy attempt to copy “all” of lean management at once at once. Many do copy partially and declare success after installing a kanban board and running huddle meetings, for example, failing to recognize the overall theory of lean in which this rests. At a minimum, the understanding should be broader and deeper than the attempted copy.
A rational plan, as Dr. Deming points out, is based on a prediction or hypothesis which must be narrowly defined in terms of expected outcomes from copying a good practice. Keeping Dr. Deming’s admonitions in mind, here are a few questions that might be asked when setting up a rational plan to copy such practices:
- When cross-functional teams are given time and resources to redesign their work, breakthrough improvements results. What do we predict will happen if we copy this practice? If good things, how will we measure it?
- When people are required to clean, organize and maintain their work areas, safety, quality, productivity and morale improve. What do we predict will happen if we similarly bring “5S” to our environment? If good things, how will we measure this?
- When we make status visible to all, expose gaps and encourage problem solving dialogue, performance improves. What do we predict will happen if we make status visible in our environment? If good things, how will we measure this?
- When we listen carefully to customers, reflect their desires in designs, involve them in testing early models of the product, sales improve. What do we predict will happen if we bring this practice to our designers, engineers and marketers? If good things, how will we measure this?
- How well do we understand the theories, or underlying logic, which underpin the success such practices?
We can reflect on the many good ideas which we have attempted to copy, whether it be lean methods, personal productivity models, diet plans, exercise regimens or learning to juggle:
- What examples of success have we tried to copy?
- How well did we understand the underlying logic or theory behind the idea?
- What predictions did we make about how copying these methods would change conditions?
- How did we interpret the data from our trials?
- How rational was our plan?
In my experience, copying successful practices is invaluable and highly recommended. It is how Toyota got its start on the lean path. I would go as far to say that those who eschew copying and learning from others are wasting their time. Copying successful practices is even inherent in the “A” or “act / adjust” step of the continuous improvement and problem solving PDCA cycle. We just need to be rational and explicit about our expectations and predictions.