Lean is All About People – Or is It? 2 of 2

By Jon Miller Updated on March 19th, 2018

In Part 1, we asked whether it was true that lean was “all about the people” and saw that lean was at least as much about flow, batch size reduction, and the various lean methods that enable this. What are the other two main factors of lean, and how do they compare in importance?

Visibility. Because we are talking about humans, whose most information-rich sense is vision, we refer to abnormality management as visualization or visual management or visibility in the English lean vernacular. This naming confuses the method with the aim. We are presenting abnormalities visually so that we can respond to and manage them better. A more accurate term would be “perceptibility” if we wanted to encompass vibration sensing, acoustic error sensing, and other automated abnormality management methods. Whether they flow fast and smooth or in turbulent batches, systems change due to external factors, human intervention or entropy. Lean does not work without the ability to monitor system and be aware of the performance of the system. Humans invented various lean methods, from 5S to huddle boards to hour-by-hour charts to andons to kanban systems to mistake-proofing to standardized work to kamishibai to jidoka, for this purpose.

We could say that abnormality management is a form of batch size reduction applied to the detection and correction of problems. We make things visible so that we can see the very first sign of deviation from standards, deterioration of equipment or other signs of trouble, rather than waiting until the problem becomes too big to ignore.

The detection of abnormalities and problems often requires human observers, but not always. Humans have been clever enough to set up automatic error-detection-and-response systems even a century ago, as evidenced by the very earliest jidoka mechanism in the autonomous loom. Well-trained AI will increasingly detect and manage abnormalities in our systems.

We could equally say, “lean is all about visibility.”

Humanity. Last but not least, there is the human factor. It is people who do the work, and it is people for whom we do the work. When we say that flow aims to transform inputs into higher value outputs using less time, this relies human judgement and opinion to say what has higher value. Lean systems do not define value, people do.

The lean approach to engaging people in problem solving, improvement and innovation is team-based and evidence-driven. It places emphasis on gemba go see over expertise-based conjecture. It uses low-cost creative approaches before spending money on sophisticated off-the-shelf technological solutions. These things recognize the social character of humanity, that large numbers of human brains find better solutions than a few elite or highly-specialized brains working alone.

Humans also have the capacity to learn, teach, remember and record things. The act of engaging people in both doing their work and in finding ways to make it easier, safer, better and faster develops more capable people who are more satisfied at work. As a result, speed, quality and cost of the system improves, we set better standards, and we detect abnormalities more readily.

Where does all of this leave the question about whether “lean is all about people”?

Is the people factor more important than flow to the success of lean? We can have the most highly engaged people but unless we grasp the practical science of batch size reduction, quality and speed will forever lag. Is the people factor more important than problem exposure and detection? Even highly engaged people working within a process with perfectly optimized batch sizes, queues and flows cannot guard against the inevitable degradation of that system unless they have great monitoring methods. Clearly it cannot be “all about” any one of these things. Lean is a three-legged stool, and people are one of its indispensable legs.

  1. Attila Dobai

    March 19, 2018 - 10:22 am

    I would argue that Lean is all about efficiency. That, of course, requires a definition of efficiency. To me it is the efficiency of time, money, and people. All of the mentioned purposes support this in my opinion.

    • Jim Bates

      March 19, 2018 - 12:06 pm

      I would respectfully disagree. I can efficiently produce junk. Efficiency must be balanced with effectiveness. And, I would suggest that balance is not exactly in the middle. If, in my quest to be efficient I break effectiveness, I lose the long game. Creating value for the customer (consumer) of the product or service that your process produces is paramount to sustainability. Of course, it is easy to over simplify this in a blog comment, and I assume if we were all able to sit around a table and converse, we would tend to agree more than disagree. The human element coupled with the other complexities introduced by the speed of change and innovation make this an ever-evolving topic that continues to develop – I am glad to be a small part of the journey!

  2. Lonnie Wilson

    March 19, 2018 - 11:15 am

    To say lean is all about “whatever” is a bit nonsensical. the topics you have mentioned are major topics in lean but lean is also all about management, leadership, problem solving ,learning, teaching, supervision, management modeling and a whole litany of other topics. To make matters more complicated there are interactions, synergisms and antagonisms between all these topics that “lean is all about”. Lean manufacturing done to the standards of the Toyota Production System is a multi-faceted and complicated beast that as soon as you think you might understand it seems to grow under your very nose. Although I heartily agree that visibility and flow are major elements, proper handling of the people and having management commitment are far more important. Even if you have all those necessary “things” those alone are insufficient, the list is much longer than that….so “its all about lots of things”. be well and thanks for provoking the thoughts

    • Jon Miller

      March 21, 2018 - 6:59 pm

      In some ways you are making my point. It is hard to say lean is “all about” or to identify the single most important aspect. Nevertheless, I have tried and found these 3 groups or chair legs. Things such as management, leadership, problem solving , learning, teaching, supervision, which you mention are all under the “people” grouping, rather than the “flow” or “abnormality control” groups. There may be other essentials that don’t fit into these 3 chair legs but so far 3 seem to suffice for me.

  3. Rorry harding

    March 21, 2018 - 6:53 pm

    Comments by Lonnie Wilson, Jim Bates and Attila Dobai are all correct and better reflect the reality of making Lean happen. It is much more than Flow as suggested in Part 1. As so much of it is about people, a formal Change Management approach is needed to better deal with change unless Lean is already a mature part of the culture.

  4. Claire Everett

    April 26, 2018 - 11:45 pm

    In my opinion everything we do to have a successful Lean organisation is centred around respect for people, this is necessary for it to work.

    I think it comes down to what is the cause and what is the effect.

    I think that flow, visual management, SMED etc. are all effects that are caused by respect for people.

    When a process wastes peoples time and efforts this is disrespectful the tools used in Lean companies fix these problems to fix the disrespect.

    If respect for people is not the cause then what is? Profit perhaps? I don’t think so, profit is certainly a benefit, but I think it’s an effect.

    After all you aren’t going to create a problem solving team and encourage them to fit a problem by telling them the financial benefit to the company are you? Well, I guess some people might, but it’s not going to be very successful. No you create the motivation to fix problems by communicating the impact on the customer and employees. In essence we say we need to fix this problem out of respect for the people why are being affected by it.

    Lean aims to use peoples time and abilities as effectively and efficiently as possible, doing this shows respect for peoples time and abilities, as a side benefit this is also good for the profitability and future of the company.

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