The Pursuit of True Pull

A couple of weeks ago I spent the day with Jeff Kaas at his company Kaas Tailored. We discussed their approach to hoshin kanri, gemba walks, visual management, creating flow in a high-mix low-volume environment, and how they are adapting their approach to kaizen after 20 years of learning by doing. We featured Jeff in a podcast, and in the near future we will release an At the Gemba video series sharing what we discussed that day. Not only is this a great a “virtual tour” of Kaas Tailored and how they practice lean management, but it will demonstrate how they serve the community by teaching other organizations.

One lesson I took away from this visit with Jeff was how we be overlooking the essential place of pull in all things. Lean discussion tends to emphasize flow. The origins of awareness of Lean came from Just-in-Time, which is continuous flow production. Many understand Lean to mean identifying customer value, working in value streams to “flow where you can, pull where you must”. There is the popular but debatable notions that six sigma is about quality and “lean is about speed” or flow. Perhaps flow is more noticeable because in our general life experience because time, traffic, cash, water, and so many familiar things flow.

Jeff has set “True Pull” as one of his three long-term objectives for his company. The other two are to become three times better at behaviors and to cut muri, or overburden, in half. Flow is not one of the three. I seem to recall about 10 years ago asking why the objective was pull instead of flow and getting the reply, “Because flow is too hard for us,” in typical Jeff fashion. Today they do a great job with mixed-model flow, perhaps because they pursue true pull. Jeff thinks they still need to get better at pull, mainly in non-production processes that involve human decision-making and information flow.

One illustration of this is that for the past 10 years Jeff has been pushing kaizen. He wants everyone to be engaged in improving, every day. This is challenging in normal conditions, but more so when his 200 employees speak 14 languages. He realized that pushing kaizen was not “True Pull”. The fruit of kaizen should not only be better processes, but people who develop their ability to recognize problems, think through them, and work with others to make things better. Jeff did his best to make the kaizen process simple, clear, fair and supported by people who can coach, but even then the “push” caused some resentment. It becomes harder to find small improvements with regularity, to meet the goal for improvement ideas per person per month. Kaizen was an obligation rather than a joy.

This is a problem many organizations face as they mature in lean management. There is a balancing act between the quality of improvement ideas, the quantity of improvement ideas, and the percentage of people in the organization who are engaged in improving their work. What Jeff has found is that at this stage he needs to create more of a pull to engage people in kaizen, even if this means accepting a lower volume of kaizen ideas in the near term.

Lean begins with the customer pull (defined valued). We map the value stream simply to gather the broken pieces of the chain so we can connect them. We do this to move things along in a flow, but more importantly so that each process can feel the pulse or pull of the next, detect defects, and limit WIP. We pull on one end of the connected chain to see how the chain responds. Most of the time it doesn’t flow smoothly, as there are snags, links break, and we learn more about both the reality of our processes and the nature of customer pull. All through this process, we need to engage people by creating motivation, desire and purpose. That is the pursuit of true pull.


  1. Don Guild

    May 6, 2019 - 10:19 am

    “True pull” should have at least these characteristics. First, it is quantitative and flexible. Second, it visualizes and controls flow. Third, it identifies the corrective measures that will have the greatest impact on flow.

  2. Shahrukh Irani

    May 10, 2019 - 7:11 am

    Unless one understands Make To Order manufacturing, which starts with buying material against an order and ends at scheduling to due dates. this idea is just talk. Toyota is the world’s most efficient overproduce of waste=Finished Goods Inventory parked on their 1200 or so dealership lots. Do you anything about the modern day Toyota Production System? That would be awesome to know!

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