Last month LEI Chairman and CEO John Shook asked us all a fundamental question in his e-mail newsletter. Everyone wants to know “what’s next for lean?” and John Shook answers this by saying, but in a much nicer way, “What business do you have asking about ‘lean next’ when you don’t even have a solid ‘lean now’ in place?” In other words people who think they’ve intellectually “gotten” lean often have not truly put into practice even 10% of it. Tools are fundamental, they are where we start and we should never leave the lean tools even out on the frontiers.
The lean tools are almost like rituals. At some point even the most religious may believe that their prayers have worked and slacken off on the practice of their faith. Rituals bind us towards practicing the behaviors we believe will bring us good things. The practice of 5S or management go-see are great examples of this in a lean context. After things are clean enough, why clean every day? Once the front line managers and processes have matured to a certain level, why not skip the morning meeting and get some other work done? Who hasn’t heard the voice of temptation to stray us from the path?
This is not to say that we need to shift our focus onto the tools to the point where lean management becomes ritualistic and empty of meaning. Like our various rituals devoid of the values that underpin them, tools themselves are useless without the values they embody. The WWII Army General, 34th U.S. President and ever quotable Dwight D. Eisenhower put it best during a speech in1957 to the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference.
I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.
Our learning and application of lean in frontier industries, processes and human systems will bring nothing if not unexpected situations. Like the military plan, the textbook lean manufacturing tool rarely survives an encounter with the enemy. We must be extremely well versed in the tools but highly capable in “tooling”: the use of and adaptation of tools to realize their original value. Tools are worthless but tooling is everything.
These lean tools, practices and systems are not useful in themselves at all; they only live through use in actual practice. In this way the lean tools are quite unlike most other useful business tools or systems we think of today of the types which can be installed, configured and set up to run passively in the background, saving us time and money with little or no intervention by humans. Sometimes organizations struggle or fail at lean because they think lean tools should behave in much the same way as their best tools and systems do; push a button and all of the work is done for you. Lean tools demand quite a bit of attention, a lot of tooling around.
Ironically “tooling about” or “tooling around” is English slang for doing nothing in particular, or to act without aim. At first glance it seems “use of tools” gives a better impression than “tooling”. But perhaps there should be some part of our practice of lean tools that is aimless, carefree and playful. We can learn things by wandering around, taking things apart and making unexpected uses of tools, driven by curiosity. We must be curious.
Otherwise we will not learn. And we must learn because we are all beginners at lean. Most of the people I have met on the lean path have been either true beginners or those who were not but humbly claimed to be (the masters). The rest of us, we’re just tooling around.