Do You Want to Go Far or Go Fast on Your Lean Journey?

There is a proverb from the continent of Africa, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” I was reminded of it this week. Companies eager to implement lean manufacturing quickly will put the best and brightest minds on the project. These are typically managers, engineers and specialists in the field. It is true that well-directed, well-designed lean implementations led by people of the right caliber of intelligence and influence get help you go fast to a certain level of maturity as a lean operation.
But how far will this approach take you? Lean implementations heavily relying on specialists or small groups of experts will tend to focus on technical aspects of redesigning the production system or business system. While this will deliver breakthrough results within a 12-24 month time frame, what of the other 600 months after that? At Toyota they reached a industry-leading level of breakthrough performance somewhere between 15 and 21 years after starting their journey. Given that they were pioneers, we must forgive them for taking 8-10 times as long as typical companies target for lean transformation these days.
The transformation effort at Toyota was also led by a small group of powerful individuals, namely Taiichi Ohno, Kikuo Suzumura, Fujio Cho and company, within what was to become the Operations Management Consulting Division. These people were tough as nails and as sharp as tacks. But there was plenty of “soft side” to the development of TPS. Their “in the blood” PDCA management culture, suggestion system with a staggering 58 year history of continuity, an emphasis on developing and supporting the front line worker, making and keeping clear and visible agreements, and a leadership philosophy of creating a healthy tension even in the best of times has resulted in decades of breakthrough improvement. Toyota has successfully brought along others by planning carefully and acting decisively when consensus was achieved. No company claiming to emulate Toyota at operational excellence should neglect that they must “go with others” in order to stay on the long path.
Those of us in the role of external consultants and instructors do not always have the pleasure of seeing a lean management system mature over decades from the inside organically, as do people who work within larger organizations going through these changes. Even some of us who have this pleasure can grow impatient and leave for opportunities with other companies that seem to be on the fast track to lean. But that may be a mistake. Speed is not everything. Those of us who are able to stand up to the short-sighted pressure to deliver quarter-to-quarter earnings growth should ask not how fast, but how far. How far do you want to go? As the destination comes within sight, who do you want to see around you, helping you on your journey? After a few decades, wouldn’t you rather not be asked “How much faster can we go?” but rather “How much farther can we go?”


  1. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    October 3, 2008 - 4:30 am

    Great post Jon. This is absolutely right. I wrote about “tortoise versus hare lean” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean. People want to sprint their way to lean, missing most of the foundation along the way, and without a foundation we have nothing to build upon. I have many conversations with executives that begin “how long will the lean transformation take?” I of course respond that it’s a journey and we’re never done and we must start and continue with that in mind. The response is usually “yes, yes, a journey, I understand. But really, how long?”
    Two things I think people must consider in this. First is that we do need to get results early, otherwise someone, even ourselves, may burnout if we aren’t seeing the benefits. Faith isn’t enough. We have to prove it to ourselves. This doesn’t mean abandoning the foundation. It means paying attention to what gains are generating as we do.
    Secondly, people need to build high-leverage reflection points into their journey. This means stopping to look at what’s working, what’s not, what do we need to do differently. So many companies start their lean journey, build a plan, and then follow the plan. They never go back to adjust. We must pre-plan those reflection points, because if we don’t, the only time we’ll reflect is when we’re so far off course that we can’t avoid it any longer.
    And just remember, it’s the tortoise that won in the end!

  2. Jon Miller

    October 3, 2008 - 7:37 am

    Excellent points Jamie.
    We used the tortoise and hare metaphor with executive and one of hour clients and he said, “Yes, Jon but can we give that tortoise rocket boosters?” which made me laugh but he was serious. To your point about showing results early, he was willing to be in it for the long haul but needed to see results early.
    Once we earn that credibility and establish that lean is a key enabler to the goals of a leader, they will take personal interest in the monthly and quarterly reflection and adjustment points.