Are you a million method woman or man? Too many well-intentioned lean implementations are. The million method man has a tool or method to solve any problem they encounter. In the best of situations they are heroes and teachers who bring relief and understanding. In the worst of situations they are goats and pushers who talk before they listen, ignoring the broader human context of the problem.
Nineteenth century American poet, transcendentalist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Here is a list of 40 lean manufacturing methods, tools and approaches. They share the common feature that they are numbered, and only this fact limits the list to less than fifty. A continuous improvement glossary I maintain as a sort of a personal occupational illness has more than 400 methods (entries). This is just on lean operations so I would imagine there are easily thousands of methods if we expanded this across specific related fields such as quality, organizational development, strategy, etc. No doubt we would approach a million by expanding our search to glossary items outside the field of manufacturing operations. But let’s not.
As Emerson said, the principles for excellence through continuous improvement are few:
Maintain a long-term focus on purpose
Treat people are assets whose value increases as they grow
Lead as if you had no power, only influence
Go see for yourself on the gemba
Optimize processes end-to-end rather than locally
Flow whenever you can, pull always
Use standards to enable continuous improvement
Make problems visible
Stop, call for help and fix the problems immediately
Ask why repeatedly until the root cause is found
Plan slowly by developing consensus and act quickly to implement
Engage everyone in solving problems
This is not intended as “the” final and comprehensive list of lean principles. It’s all I aspire to at the moment. The list is largely based on the work of many from over a century ago, formalized and popularized through Deming, Toyota and now the proponents of what we call “lean”. Your list of principles may differ from these. You may or may not agree with all of these principles. We all agree that the millions of methods work. Sometimes we argue about which set of methods and tools we should adopt (e.g. the “lean or six sigma?” non-issue).
Yet seldom do leaders engage their organizations in discussions about which few principles will guide them in choosing their methods. Given the average of three years that most chief executives serve in that role and the immense pressures to deliver quarterly earnings, it takes a leader of vision to think deeply and look beyond the methods, and do as Emerson wrote:
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”