Toolkits or Aids to Knowledge and Creativity?

improvement tool

The great mystery in the history of lean is not so much how and why Toyota and a handful of Japanese companies were able to make large strides in business excellence, but why so many have failed to follow their example. In a word, the difference is intent. What is the motivation and purpose for an organization adopts the lean management philosophy? The answer to this question has a large influence on long-term success. Often the main factor influencing the decision to “go lean” is the need to improve performance. Necessity is the mother of invention as well as the midwife of transformations. The most successful organizations have learned that cost reduction, while necessary, cannot remain the primary long-term intent for continuous improvement.

Dr. Edwards Deming was instrumental in setting the foundation for lean in Japan through his teaching. What he taught was not 5S, SMED, flow, pull, takt time, standard work, kanban and jidoka, or the so-called tools we might recognize as part of the lean kit today. Instead, he taught the use of statistics to control process behavior, detect problems and identify root causes. Deming did not offer specific countermeasures or lean models, but rather the PDCA problem solving method. It was up to Toyota and other companies to practice the PDCA cycle, learning, adapting or at times inventing the components of what became the lean management system.

Regarding the intent of his teaching in Japan, Deming observed:

“Statistical teaching in Japan put the emphasis on the responsibility of management and of the engineer to foresee problems and to state them explicitly. Statistical techniques were taught, not as a kit of tools to try out here or there, but as an aid to solution of problems, aids to knowledge and creativity.”

What would you say about the teaching of lean management systems or improvement systems in your country? What would a visiting Dr. Deming say about how your organization is teaching management and improvement? Do your leaders talk about lean in terms of toolkits more than aids to creativity and problem solving? How does what they say line up with how the organization takes action? Is lean practiced as a kit of tools to try out here or there or as a system of knowledge-building through problem solving? How clear to everyone is the intent of leadership in teaching lean?

These are the types of questions that can help us clarify and understand our intent.

Even in Japan, Deming’s broadly-accepted teachings, practiced in the form of TQM, became stale and ineffective in the 1990s when it lost the focus on knowledge-building and creativity. Instead, continuous improvement through kaizen, suggestion schemes, 5S and other means became part of the management wallpaper rather than a vital aid to solving business problems. Few Japanese business leaders doubted its historically proven value, but lost sight of its original intent and were unable to detect large oncoming problems. The best of Deming’s students were the ones who had taken responsibility “to foresee problems and to state them explicitly” and refocused their lean efforts with intent to face the unique challenges of the 1990s post-economic bubble.

Reflect for a moment on any of the items in your lean toolkit, for example:

  • Do you use flow mainly to reduce inventory, lead-time and cost or to promote innovative equipment design to support one-piece flow, creative problem solving by people working?
  • Do you use standard work mainly to keep people following the easiest most productive methods possible, or to make small problems immediately visible to an observer?
  • Do you use the “gemba go see” principle mainly to find problems on the floor or do you use it to listen more humbly and intent to the spoken and unspoken needs of your customer?

In reality, it is expedient and perhaps even necessary to learn lean as a kit of tools at first. Before these tools can be “aids to” problem solving, etc. the organization needs to build basic capability by diligently practicing the tools in the kit. But are these tools used with the intent to positively impact safety, quality speed and cost? Are they used with the intent to build knowledge about the people, process and products? Are they used with the intent to make problems visible? With the intent to enable people to use their creativity to solve these problems? The toolkit remains the same. The critical difference is intent.