Tools are Worthless, but Tooling is Everything

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.

5 Comments

  1. Bob Emiliani

    January 3, 2011 - 6:29 am

    Jon – Shooks’s perspective is indeed on-target. The fact that people think they know Lean tools when so little is actually put into practice suggests that Lean tools represent opportunity as much as they do danger.
    While obviously necessary and very helpful, the tools used correctly can help improve processes in remarkable ways. However, the danger, as we have long known, is that Lean tools become the both beginning and end of Lean for many people. Lean tools become misunderstood as Lean management itself, devoid of the changes in mindset and behaviors that must occur, particularly among senior managers. Lean tools are very powerful; their use by associates gives senior managers exactly what they want – quick cost savings, etc., with no effort on their part – and thus they cannot see the bigger picture.
    Lean management has been taught for decades using a tools-based approach, yet there are few organizations that practice Lean management with distinction (continuous improvement + respect for people). This outcome suggests that teaching Lean tools, to managers in particular, has great limitations. For example, Lean tools do not strongly encourage senior managers to question their deeply-held economic, social, political, and historical beliefs about business, management, and leadership.
    In 1913, Morris Cooke, a close colleague of Frederick Taylor, tried to explain this and other critically important aspects of progressive management that people lose sight of when they possess narrow or incomplete views. See http://www.bobemiliani.com/oddsnends/morris_cooke.pdf.

  2. John Hunter

    January 3, 2011 - 8:11 pm

    I’ll put in a plug for integrating Dr. Deming’s ideas into management improvement efforts. It still isn’t easy to change how management (and everybody) thinks. But I have not seen anything better at getting people to examine the core, fundamental changes needed. And it is completely compatible with everything about lean manufacturing (which is no surprise given the history of all this stuff).

  3. Mark Welch

    January 4, 2011 - 7:22 am

    I’ve been seeing the quote by Ike that “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” around for awhile now. I disagree. I think both are valuable. If there is no planning, there is no plan. If there is no plan, how will people proceed?
    If I am missing something, someone please explain it to me, but I don’t understand how plans are worthless. Would Ike have had his soldiers proceed into battle without a plan? Was D-Day executed without a plan?
    I just don’t get it.

  4. Richard Dennis

    January 4, 2011 - 10:42 am

    Great article, thanks for posting. Tools without the action behind them are pretty much useless. It’s easy to get stuck in a comfort zone with just about anything.
    Great post by Bob Emiliani as well!

  5. Mark Ballantine

    January 17, 2011 - 8:06 pm

    I too heard the herald, “Plans are worthless, Planning is essential”, as a Medical NCOIC in the Army. Those words are absolutely valid. My team planned for every possibility. The enemy planned too. And so did Murphy. Our plans didn’t jive with the others, weather, logistics, and an endless number of chaotic variables making our plan, pretty much worthless. Fortunately, Americans read creatively between the lines and are not bound to dictatorial obedience; essentially free thinkers governed by commonsense law. Lots of words to say, “plan for success but modify aggressively on-the-fly based on external influences.”
    Lean Management is a sweet way of conveying the same concept. Today, all companies must embrace the “Lean” concepts. I work extensively in the non-residential construction industry as a general foreman and journeyman carpenter. We are constantly building efficiencies into our everyday work with jigs and procedural modifications. One such innovation is the mantisgrip backing clip, (see mantisgrip.com). The backing clip eliminates one tradesman from the workforce while increasing completion speeds, superior quality, and much more.
    Our field or front line workers are the source of lean management. Use the most talented resources available.