Tips for Lean Managers

The Lean Journey and the Long Path

By Jon Miller Published on July 22nd, 2008

A journey is used as a common metaphor for lean deployment. In fact many speak of the implementation of the Toyota Production System and its many non-production sub-processes as “the lean journey”. As a pursuit of zero waste, it is a journey that never ends. We can think of the lean journey in terms of the short path and the long path: the short path being problem solving for immediate results and the long path being developing problem solvers for long term results. In our observation the vast majority of organizations are on the short path. The realization that there is another way is slowly dawning on many.
A journey is made of many paths. Some are safer than others. There are detours and there are highways. Some days we make smooth progress on our journey and some days the scenery does not noticeably change even after walking many miles. On the lean journey in particular we need to be mindful of whether we are taking the short path or the long path.
The short path is to directly solve the problem. It is to pick up the piece of trash in your workplace and throw it away. You are solving a problem, setting a good example for anyone who may be watching, but it is still the short path. The short path is to seek results.
The long path is to indirectly but deliberately solve the problem. It is to point out the piece of trash on the floor to those who work and manage the area each day and to ask why. The long path is to question both the process and the results. In fact both paths, being endless, take an equal amount of time, unless you give up and quit. The long path is “long” because it is feels longer. It is hard. The short path feels faster, more accurate and overall more efficient to do the job right by yourself, the first time, instead of the long path of giving others the chance to learn by trying to solve that problem or complete an assignment. The relationship between the short path and the long path is like that of efficiency and effectiveness: you need both but without effectiveness, efficiency doesn’t count for a whole lot.
We should remember though that you only travel the long path once. It is a progressive journey (though endless) with each success in developing a lean thinker leading you further on the path. On the short path you may see the same territory over and over again and not get far on your journey, if you focus too much on the non-human technical and system aspects that make up a lean organization. Teaching others to solve a problem, letting others make mistakes and helping them learn from their mistakes, the long path takes patience. On the short path you “get there” quicker, put the fix in place and get the results. But we know you never truly “get there” on the lean journey. You can only be at one place at one time, while the developing problem solvers on the long path is a force multiplier.
Toyota people speak of “mono zukuri wa hito zukuri” literally “making things is making people” or “building products begins with developing your people”. I’ve seen a lot of so-called world class manufacturers who were good at making things. I’ve seen very few that were good at making people. The secret to walking the long path is to mark the journey by how many people are coming along with you.

  1. Rich

    July 23, 2008 - 12:45 pm

    You are certainly on the long path and know its secret.

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