What Lean is Not and Never Will Be


Industrial anthropologist, best selling author and eminence grise John Shook wrote a thoughtful column on the recent debate around what lean means and where we need to go next. He concludes that lean has always been about Toyota but now it is time to stop looking so much to Toyota for direction. In light of the recent weeks’ uncharacteristic quality challenges at Toyota, some are finding reasons to question lean for reasons other than those John Shook describes.

I was particularly struck by this passage in the article:

As for “TPS” or the “Toyota Way”, I have previously distinguished between the Toyota Production System and “Toyota’s production system.” I say that “I distinguish…” but I didn’t distinguish anything until taught to do so via a difficult lesson from Mr. Ohba, my boss at the time at TSSC. To my great frustration as I tried to argue in response to some of Mr. Ohba’s specific lessons that, “look, Toyota doesn’t actually do all of those things…”, Mr. Ohba admonished me to “never confuse the ‘Toyota Production System with Toyota’s production system’.” I was furious, because that effectively killed the debate I was trying to engage him in. Later, upon calming down, I realized that it was one of the most important lessons he provided me.

The TPS was written down and approximately codified some 20 years ago by outside observers, not the people within Toyota who actually practiced it. Toyota’s production system has since then evolved quite a bit. I’ve heard enough former-Toyota employees say, “It’s not like that” in reference to the near-perfection depicted in books on TPS or the Toyota Way to be fully convinced that Toyota’s production does not equal TPS.

Furthermore, those who study TPS have realized that there are many systems both social and technical which made the TPS possible within the specific Japanese automotive supply chain history that was Toyota’s world. But the world moves on. I suppose we can say that Toyota has long moved beyond TPS and we should not be afraid to do the same, should there come a time when we have understood and practiced it adequately such that w can say “this is our production system and here is how we moved beyond TPS.”

There are useful approximations of definitions of lean including the 5 steps of value, value streams, flow, pull, pursue perfection; the elimination of waste, variability and overburden; the 14 principles of the Toyota way; the TPS house with its two pillars and foundation and so forth. With every new book on the latest lean tool or fad we are led to believe that missing pieces of the total lean enterprise picture have been exposed. Like generations of paleontologists who refuse to agree on a system of taxonomy we are merely giving new names to old bits of bone long cataloged and forgotten in some other tome. It’s all been said before, and this reminds me of a quote:

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

Twentieth century French Nobel prize-winning author Andre Gide is credited with this bit of wisdom but I have no doubt in my mind that some ancient Greek said the same thing a few millennia ago, while no one was listening. So Gide gets the credit… for now.

The PDCA cycle has been with us more than 100 years. Developing front line leaders through Training Within Industry is one of those things that “must be said again” today because virtually no one was listening in the United States for the past 65 years. M

anagement by walking around the gemba may be as old as time. Yet no matter how we package kaizen, TWI, JIT, standard work, visual management, A3 problem solving, and so on this set is but a temporary approximation of what we are calling lean. Taking any or even all of these prescriptions will not lead to guaranteed success with lean implementation. Time will tell whether Toyota’s recent quality troubles are a result of their straying from the lean path (overburdening their design process or supply base) or whether peerless Toyota’s production system (and by implication lean itself) was not adequate to prevent such massive failures.

All of these beautiful systems and tools should be studied and practiced, but lean is not and never will be about these things. These are tools, means to the end of betterment. Lean is not about maximizing shareholder return; that is only a happy long-term byproduct and a sign of a well-run business with a fortunate undergirding of lean systems. Short-term returns have almost nothing to do with lean and everything to do with how financial games are played. Lean is a culture and way of working but lean is not about and never will be culture-specific. American ideas jumped the ocean and back again, now loose worldwide and across industries wide-ranging. Lean is not and never will be what we think it is today, if we continue to pursue it.

We can’t simply say that whatever is not “not lean” is lean. We need to start with fundamental definition and then keep out what is absolutely contrary to lean. As long as we have a correct image of what lean is and what it is not and never will be, we can wander towards it. I think we should leave the definition of “lean” a bit blurry and vague. It should be something seen shimmering like a mirage in a desert. We can ever approach a mirage but never actually touch it. A mirage is a reflection of something true concrete that exists somewhere in the distance. A mirage is an image of a city, a caravan or an oasis. Like a traveler in the desert, we may fail if we expect to arrive at exactly that oasis, but the vision gives us courage and purpose to march on through the desert.

Let’s say that lean is continuous improvement and respect for people. Then let’s get our head right, get started and never stop. And let’s not worry too much about what lean is not – there’s quite a lot of that but precious little time for it if we keep our hands and minds busy.

8 Comments

  1. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    February 2, 2010 - 2:58 am

    I think it is important to make the distinction. I try, sometimes without any success, to convince people that lean is not about copying Toyota. Imagine you were cheating in school (not that any of you ever would) and you copied off the kid next to you, and then when you turned in your exam, you found out they had different questions. Opps. Don’t copy solutions, because it is likely that you have different answers. The things that people see at Toyota, I argue, are not the Toyota Production System. That’s really HOW they came up with those solutions to their problems. It’s the thinking process that makes the difference. Most argue lean is about waste elimination. I believe it is about problem solving first.
    Don’t try to become the Toyota of your industry. Try to become the best YOU of your industry.
    Thanks Jon.
    Jamie Flinchbaugh
    http://www.jamieflinchbaugh.com

  2. Paul

    February 2, 2010 - 5:22 am

    Great insights, This is my reflection on “lean”. Lean as a set of tools; a tool, broadly defined, is an entity that interfaces between two or more domains; that facilitates more effective action of one domain upon the other.
    “Lean as a system”; systems have inter-connectivity: the various parts of a system have functional as well as structural relationships between each other.
    “Lean as a culture”; a culture is the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively.
    If my definitions are somewhat on target (I’m sure there may be some disagreement) I would argue that lean is an evolving culture of imagination and creativity within the confines of a well structured endlessly evolving system (TPS) composed of various parts that are interconnected. “Lean thinkers” are self directed and empowered to use a set of tools to continuously improve, facilitate the flow of materials and information in the pursuit of perfection.

  3. Rick Foreman

    February 2, 2010 - 5:57 am

    Jon;
    We’ve had quite a bit of discussion lately amongst some of our lean network about the growing displeasure in the term, “lean.” The connotations within our offices and culture tend to imply something painful is coming or being done. We’ve had people sitting in a cubicle ask, “what does lean mean to me?” Yet, when we use terminology such as continuous improvement, they automatically connect with some foundational understanding about the vision for a future state. We’re using the term less and less while focusing on wrapping our arms around simply improving on what we did well today for what we’ll face tomorrow. Great post and right on in my opinion. “Lean” is often misguided as some mystical path to perfection, when in essence it is simple common sense engaged, embraced and influenced by the people doing the work every day and willing to pursue excellence. Great post!

  4. Tim McMahon

    February 2, 2010 - 10:00 am

    Great piece. I like Jamie’s comments. I was recently asked at a Sales meeting what Lean was. My answer was it is about engaging everyone to solve problems so you can be the best you can be. Not every problem is the same. There are many solutions to a single problem. There is often not just one answer that will fit. Not all solutions will work in all environments since all companies and situations are different. That is not to say that you can’t learn from others. There is much to learn. You still have to think which is why I like to refer to TPS as the Thinking People System.
    Tim McMahon
    A Lean Journey
    http://leanjourneytruenorth.blogspot.com

  5. James Murray

    February 3, 2010 - 9:56 am

    Now that you mention it, James Womack and team wrote “The Machine…” about TPS and coined the phrase Lean, but was their impression of how things were. An even more important point made is that continuous improvement and evolution dictate that things are probably not as they were 10, 20 or 50 years ago at Toyota. I work within the automotive collision industry where Lean implementation is spotty at best, but I believe that Lean as a system and/or culture can be implemented in varying degrees in any industry: customer focus, employee engagement, defect elimination. Bravo for the interesting article and thoughtful responses.

  6. Mark Graban

    May 22, 2010 - 4:00 pm

    Jon – what do you mean by the statement “The TPS was written down and approximately codified some 20 years ago by outside observers, not the people within Toyota who actually practiced it.” ?
    TPS was written about by Ohno and Shingo, which writings or codification are you referring to? It’s a bit unclear.

  7. Jon

    May 22, 2010 - 9:04 pm

    Hi Mark
    What I meant by my comment was that Monden, Womack & Jones, Brown & Spear and others wrote about TPS and brought lean into the popular consciousness over the past 20 years. Ohno, Shingo and others wrote about the Toyota system and its elements prior to that.

  8. Gao Shang

    March 18, 2011 - 10:25 pm

    like this piece of sharing.But I am currently using the Toyota Way framework to measure the level of “lean” among the large construction firms in China.I always believe that toyota production system is the mother platform,and I always like to use the TPS instead lean.
    especially refer to the toyota way model,
    they have the tools level, which is the process part.
    they have the “respect people” level, which is the “people part” above the process,
    they have the problem solving level, which is the “thinking” process others need to learn,not copy
    but fundmentally, they are all based on the “long term” philosophy. customer focus and contribution to the society.
    gaoshang