Lean Manufacturing

The Forest and the Trees: a Lesson in Change

By Jon Miller Published on May 30th, 2005

There is a saying “Not seeing the forest for the trees” which means that you can’t see the overall situation because you are too focused on one or more of the smaller details. This is a common challenge for people trying to implement Lean.
Traditional manufacturing has been so focused on doing individual jobs better without understanding the impact of local optimization on the flow across the whole enterprise. Individual asset utilization is valued over the throughput of value across the entire process, even at the expense of individual assets.
An enterprise-wide Lean approach should be:
1. Look at the forest first. Conduct a business assessment. What are the vital few objectives that will be the focus of Lean implementation?
2. Next look at the woods. This means drawing the door to door value stream map to see where there are issues with material flow or information flow at the factory level.
3. Next look at the individual trees. Which processes are broken, unstable, or highly variable in quality or time? Where is the inventory?
4. Look next at the branches. What are the steps, work sequences, or time elements that are causing the problem?
5. Finally look at the leaves at the end of the branches. What are the root causes of these problems from 4M + 1E perspective (manpower, material, machinery, method, and environment) standpoint?
On a recent visit to an electronics manufacturer in China drew interesting parallels to seeing trees and forests and social policy. The Chinese government sets out 5-year plans to build roads, turn villages into forests, towns into cities, rice paddies into industrial parks. This is possible because of the continuity of the one-party system and the lack of left-right swings we see in policy with each President of the United States, for instance.
China definitely looks at the forest. Their goal is to develop a “well off society”. They have succeeded in reducing poverty and improving social services. Admittedly they have a longer way to rise (more room for improvement) but nonetheless their progress from year to year is quite amazing. An afforestation project near Beijing is a good example.
In order to address the problem of the severe “yellow sand” sandstorms that blow in from the steppes of Mongolia and mix with industrial pollutants the Chinese government is spending more than $200 million to plant forests in a large part of the Hebei province. This will result in displacing the people of two entire towns, or approximately 80,000 people who live in the area.
This is an example of looking at the “forest” or the good of the overall society and the 14 million people living around Beijing, at a cost of ignoring the “trees” or the dislocation and the disturbed lives of 80,000 people. Any similar projects would spend a decade in the courts in the U.S.A., eminent domain notwithstanding. In China, the trees are replanted.
Certainly the best long-term solution is the root cause corrective action of reducing pollutants and stemming desertification that results in yellow sand storms. China is also addressing these areas by cutting coal consumption and tightening emissions requirements on the growing number of automobiles.
These drastic measures are possible because they have a strong central government. In change management terms they are able to execute these rapid improvements “top down” rather effectively, as compared to the years of process and debate that prevents building better public transit in cities such as Seattle.
In Lean we must take the “forest” approach to improving processes. This is in contrast to Six Sigma which can tend to look at the branches or leaves of individual trees. It is also in contrast to the traditional engineering approach of optimizing individual processes and maximizing output of assets, too often at an overall increase in cost, lead-time, and defects.
The Value Stream Mapping tool is very effective in helping people see the entire forest. Collecting actual data can often demonstrate that although the trees (individual process) may appear healthy individually, the entire forest (the series of business processes serving the customer) is sick. Factories and societies can succeed by focusing on the trees after considering the entire forest.

  1. alex kubi

    February 2, 2009 - 4:25 am

    Would you kindly expound on the Item number one on the enterprise-wide Lean approach should be particularly on how one might arrived at the ‘Vital Few’ Objective:
    1. Look at the forest first. Conduct a business assessment. What are the ‘vital few’ objectives that will be the focus of Lean implementation?
    I know it is a May 30, 2005 article but I am on it. I have just finished a one day workshop on the essence of high performance business. When discussing the three building block of a high performance organization, we talk about vision, mission, purpose, values and how they are created and aligned. The enabling Objectives to achieve the organization Vision, and mission are the ‘Vital Few’. I noted in your article you have used the term. would share with us on the same and I am putting it as a silly question though! How do organizations determine the ‘vital few’?

  2. Jon

    February 4, 2009 - 1:21 pm

    Hi Alex,
    I answered your question here: Ask Gemba.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.