Everyday conversations with lean learners and lean practitioners make me think that this problem of the erosion of meaning, or even extensions of transference is not unique to A3 thinking. In fact we could list lightly-learned or misinterpreted lean management principles from A to Z, but here are eight.
1 piece flow. How important is the number 1 in one-piece flow? Is it magical? The obvious benefits of one-piece flow are in reversing the effect of larger batches creating ever more sever bullwhip effects, and avoiding cash-trapping events from non-optimal capital investment decisions. However from a systems thinking point of view there are cases when batch production is better. Non-discrete production environments with highly unpredictable and inherently non-visible, nonlinear flow such as knowledge work are two examples where non-unitary queuing of WIP is necessary for overall productivity of the system. This does not mean more is better. One piece is just the ideal, the direction, the lowest possible whole number. Pursuing one-piece flow while exposing and removing the reasons why one-piece flow will not work is more important than insisting on 1.
2 bin system. This is really just a 1 + 1 system. The second 1 can be any number, all depending on the frequency, size and reliability of replenishment cycles. It’s also important to remember that the 2 bin only refers to quantity measured at point of consumption rather than across the entire chain. A 2 bin solution can also lack a systems / total cost perspective if the tools is applied without enough consideration of the extreme downside of running short. Not having the third or fourth bin of life-saving miracle water has massive negative downsides in extreme thirst events, even if the statistically validated safety factor tells you that you will never need it more than 2. This is where heuristics trumps statistics, not to mention lean dogma.
3P. Someone coined this as another alphanumeric lean buzzword only about twenty years ago yet it has been quick to (d)evolve. The original Japanese is “production preparation”. That’s two Ps. The third was added in the English to make Production Preparation Process. This has also been altered to suit the needs of consultants as variously as Production, Preparation, Process or as Product & Process Preparation or even People, Process, Planet. The 3P approach is cross-functional, visual, customer-focused, rapidly iterative, experimentation-oriented, and references lean tools and principles as needed, especially when designing equipment or processes. The 3P approach has been used to bring from concept to launch anything from a widget to a business venture to a hospital. The core of the P-preparation method is to start from customer needs, visualize, evaluate, try out various options, and repeat until ready or out of time and budget. Most lean startup principles can be found directly in the 3P approach. Build-measure-learn.
4M. This also begs to be renamed “multiple factor” or “whole systems” analysis rather than limiting our thinking to only four, the man (people-related), machine, material and method elements that start with an M. Mother nature, measurement, money, and others have been added to make 5M, 6M and 7M. What we gain in mnemonic value by sticking with Ms we lose in analytical quality and variety.
5S. Kudos to the languages and cultures that have found a way to fit the five S words from Japanese and English into German (5A), Swahili (5K) and many others. Creating a sense of local ownership of the concept is a great thing. However it’s quite OK to do only 4S as Toyota does, or only 3S as many organizations are realizing. The 5S activity is essentially an initial cleaning followed by maintenance and improvement of visual standards. The auditing, scoring etc. are good culture theater but neither necessary nor always fun for people. The low audit scores are better used as honest discussion opportunities for why people are not motivated to do 5S, high scores why people can’t see the glaring wastes, but this requires leadership less focused on the result than the process. Within pure knowledge work and service processes that do not have a visible product or output, 2S is more than enough – sorting and straightening. Hoshin planning is essentially 2S for business planning – limit to vital few and prioritize ruthlessly. There is some irony to the fact that when one applies 5S to 5S itself, one of the words we drop is standardization.
5 Why. Ask “why?” not five times, but at least five times until you find the root causes for each problem. Ask not five separate “why?” questions, but sequential questions. Don’t even be caught up on “why?” since many times asking “how?” gets you to the next line of questioning more easily. We are looking for causation among phenomena, not human motivation. Stay away from “who?” until you have shifted from root cause identification to countermeasure implementation. Please don’t ask “why?” if you don’t care deeply about both people and about addressing problems at root cause level.
6 Sigma. I have yet to meet a six sigma practitioner who emphasized the importance of processes achieving six standard deviations of reliability, in practice. While this is achievable through 6 sigma, it is rarely necessary. The purpose of 6 sigma is not to achieve six sigma process reliability. It is to insure business continuation. Six sigma is a means to increase process reliability which reduces losses and improves customer satisfaction while lowering cost. In the best of cases this is done by engaging people’s creativity through a broad training program that would make Dr. Deming proud.
7 Wastes. While none of these 7 should be dismissed as “not applicable” without honest self-reflection and deep examination of processes from the viewpoint of customers, the level of understanding of waste and the ruler used to measure it must be adapted to suit each environment. The TPM world listed 6 big losses (the new dogma stretches to 16 plus) related to equipment effectiveness. Within people service processes there are other losses which a product will not experience, related to feelings and service levels, which we must consider as wastes or losses in the general sense. Regardless of field of application, we must find appropriate labels for to communicate the fact that we want to do less bad, more good – the essence of kaizen.
Too often we see people fighting over definitions and dogma or watering down and reinventing various artifacts such as those above. We should be more scientific, building on definitions and wisdom of the empiricists who blazed the trail before us. That said, the real problem is not the relabeling or misunderstanding of Japanese words or lean lingo, but how we trouble ourselves with questions of arbitrary divisions within continuous improvement such as, “Where do we draw the line between kaizen, just-do-its, kaikaku, six sigma projects, A3, hansei?” This is a sign of treating the collection of epiphenomena as the system itself, rather than understanding that beliefs and methods of cognition are what create kaizen cultures, build lean enterprises, excellent organizations. The names of artifacts are simply handles. Once you have grasped and turned them, you must let them go before you can walk through the door of understanding.
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