How to Balance Broad Deployment of Lean Tools with Development of Depth of Capability

By Jon Miller Updated on April 20th, 2019

During his keynote speech at KataCon 5, Jeff Liker shared a question that he is grappling with lately; how to balance the broad deployment of Lean tools with the development of depth of capability of people? By his own admission, his career has been based on championing the latter and criticizing the former. Humbly, he admits that if many companies and consultancies are deploying Lean tools and getting results, it can work. Tools alone won’t have the sustainability or as big of an impact, but the slower and deeper learning approach such as kata equally may not satisfy a business’ need to improve results quickly. He concludes, “Scientific thinking is a core part of the Lean system we are trying to create,” and that kata in isolation won’t deliver the benefit of building the whole system.

His question may be easier to answer if we view it through the analogy of the modern system of roads and transportation. In a country like the USA, when a government or a private real estate developer decides to convert a large span of desert into a new residential, commercial and industrial suburb, they must build a modern systems of roadways allowing people to travel in and out in their automobiles. The inflows and outflow of people and goods to this new town support economic activity, social interaction, safety and a well-ordered life in general. Designing the road network is the job of civil and transportation system engineers. There are known good practices, standards and norms to follow. These are “tools” if you will. Neither the designers nor the future residents can know exactly how the traffic will flow. But civil engineers work to a project deadline, and cannot experiment through thresholds of knowledge. They must deploy known solutions. Neither do we need the future residents of this new town to practice Toyota Kata to design their road system, as this takes much longer than relying on specialists, opens up the possibility for expensive mistake, and requires building expertise in roadway design that they are likely to never use again. On the other hand, once the town is established and there are cars on the road, we do need people in the local council to use their scientific thinking to make sensible improvements such as parking, speed bumps, roundabouts, signage, speed limits, pedestrian avenues, landscaping and so forth based on who moves into the community and how they wish to live there and use the roads.

In the USA, we already have a mature automotive culture. People largely know how to navigate modern roadways, both technically and socially. What happens when we drop a modern road system in the middle of country with a limited history of automobile use? We see multiple cars squeezed into each lane of traffic, roads shared by automobiles as well as humans and animals on foot, vehicles with oversize and unsecured loads, traffic lights serving as modest suggestions more than clear signals to stop or go. Hitting the road in these countries is a multi-sensory adventure but with inferior transportation outcomes. Whether in traffic flow or in customer value flow, modern systems overlaid on pre-modern thinking and behavioral norms fail to live up to their potential. It is true that we need scientific thinking both from people who design and install systems and from those who work both in and on those systems.

It may sound like heresy, but developing people is not necessary for the initial deployment of the technical system such as Lean. It is necessary for the sustainment and continuous improvement of that technical system. A socio-technical system such as TPS is a mix of methods and practices proven to deliver superior performance from business processes. One of these practices is to monitor, detect faults, correct and improve those processes. This practice relies on thinking people. When we are modernizing our systems, we need specialists to design and install these systems. When we already have modern systems that need maintenance, improvement and sustainment, we must develop the people who use these modern systems. It is the responsibility of leaders to grasp where one stands and to find the right balance of broad-based tool deployment a.k.a. modernization, with deeper capability development, a.k.a. education.

Check back to the Toyota Kata Resources page or the Toyota Kata section of our learning library where we will add Jeff Liker’s keynote and other videos from KataCon 5 in the coming weeks.

  1. Bob Emiliani

    April 22, 2019 - 6:42 am

    I agree, developing people is not necessary for the initial deployment of the technical system such as Lean. I liken it to learning how to play a guitar. At first, the guitar is nothing more than a tool to make sounds and one’s focus is simply to copy others — i.e. learn how to play songs composed by others. Copying is extremely valuable preliminary experience. With continued practice, and perhaps with the help of a music teacher, the person becomes more developed in playing capability and style. Over time, both person and the guitar evolve to become a system for making pleasing sounds, alone or with other musicians.

    • Jon Miller

      April 22, 2019 - 10:00 am

      Good analogy.

  2. Mark Bradway

    May 2, 2019 - 1:12 pm

    Jon, As it consistently does; balance creates flow, i.e., value.

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