In a  recent blog post, The Lean-Industrial Complex, I said:

“Over time, the people with decades of hands-on practice in real-world settings would fall into the background, while the people who merely studied TPS [Toyota Production System] emerged as the arbiters of Lean thought and Lean practice. That such a thing could happen is remarkable give that Lean is rooted in hands-on daily practice over many, many years.”

There is great peril in following the lead of people whose understanding of Lean/TPS is a weak derivative of its original purpose and intent, and who have no actual hands-on practice. For example, it will motivate you to focus on investors’ interests by creating wealth (stock price), versus focusing on customers and providing them with ever-better products and services.

Professor Yasuhiro Monden captured the essence of TPS in conversations with Taiichi Ohno. In the book, Toyota Production System (first edition, 1983, page 2), Monden says:

“…although cost-reduction is the system’s most important goal, it must achieve three other sub-goals in order to achieve its primary objective. They include:

1. Quantity control, which enables the system to adapt to daily and monthly fluctuations in demand in terms of quantities and variety;
2. Quality assurance, which assures that each process will supply only good units to subsequent processes;
3. Respect-for-humanity, which must be cultivated while the system utilizes the human resources to obtain its cost objectives.

It should be emphasized here that these three goals cannot exist independently or be achieved independently without influencing each other or the primary goal of cost reduction. It is a special feature of the Toyota production system that the primary goal cannot be achieved without realization of the subgoals and vice versa. All goals are outputs of the same system; with productivity as the ultimate purpose and guiding concept, the Toyota production system strives to realize each of the goals for which it has been designed.”

The popular version of TPS, Lean production, ignored this accurate characterization and evolved to favor a more narrow economic rationale. By not understanding the thinking and practices of the originals leaders, people have failed to grasp many critically important aspects of TPS:

  • Learning to think differently about everything
  • The rapid pace of improvement; everybody, every day
  • Connection between challenges, teamwork, and time as a means to focus people’s work
  • How to unleash human creativity and innovation
  • Improving without spending money to concurrently achieve interconnected sets of favorable outcomes

Toyota has been making great efforts in recent years to return to the basics — the basic way of thinking and the basic way of doing things. Why? They began to veer off track in the mid-1990s and it culminated in quality problems and vast recalls by 2010.

Likewise, Lean began to veer off track in the mid-1990s as well, culminating in Lean tools becoming widely viewed as an end unto themselves. This too is a major quality problem and should result in a massive recall.

Remarkably, the promoters of Lean did not understand the importance of classic industrial engineering-based process improvement. Lean tools exist to support kaizen, not to replace it. You should follow Toyota’s lead and return to the basics as well – especially kaizen.

To do that, you must learn from the originals, in person if that option exists, or from books. Carefully study the writings of Taiichi Ohno (1, 2, 3, 4). Learn from Chihiro Nakao (1, 2, 3), who learned directly from Ohno-san and is perhaps his most accomplished disciple. And, learn from those academics who had direct contact with Ohno-san such as Yasuhiro Monden and Takahiro Fujimoto.

Doing this will result in greater clarity of purpose and of the means to achieve goals and objectives that matter to both customers and the enterprise.

8 Responses to Back to Basics

  1. Norman Bodek says:

    What is Lean?

    Lean is a word coined to mean the Toyota Production System (TPS), as
    developed by Taiichi Ohno over 50 years ago. The system initially focused on the
    elimination of seven wastes: inventory, waiting, defects, motion, over-processing,
    overproduction and transportation. Over the years, TPS has expanded through
    developing a number of tools and techniques to both eliminate those wastes and
    to make Toyota much more efficient and effective. Many companies in the West
    have tried to emulate Toyota’s success but very few have been able to be as
    successful as Toyota.

    A number of reasons for failure are: Wall Street’s demand for profits this quarter,
    the inability of American management to properly understand, lead and be
    committed to the Lean process, laying off millions of American jobs and sending
    them overseas, not developing workers to become self-reliant and to improve
    their skills and capabilities, designing jobs for future automation and not for
    human beings, and not understanding the true purpose and meaning of Lean.

    Lean is a method for an organization to attain excellence: to be super efficient
    and effective, to produce high quality products, to be innovative and continuously
    improve, to become the low-cost producer, to serve the well being of people and
    to improve the environment. Lean succeeds only with a long-term vision. Lean
    succeeds only when workers are trusted, developed continually and can work
    without their efforts leading to unemployment.

    In the medical field, Lean will work when the problems are honestly understood
    and goals are clearly set to: improve the quality of health care, improve the
    quality of life for those that work in hospitals and other medical facilities, eliminate
    medical error (it is claimed that over 200,000 people die each year from medical
    mistakes), reduce the enormous costs to deliver superior health, improve the
    skills and capabilities of doctors, nurses, administrators and other practitioners,
    to integrate the best of all medical disciplines including alternative health, and
    educate the public on their responsibility for their own health and be disciplined in
    their eating and exercising habits.

    In manufacturing and other organizations Lean will work when: management fully
    understands their responsibilities to lead the effort; people are educated in their
    role to learn the Lean tools to continuously improve every day their skills, the
    process and the environment; improvement does not lead to unemployment;
    work is designed for human beings with intelligence and infinite capabilities; and
    people take responsibility for improving the environment and the betterment of

    Lean for the individual worker: a seed that grows into a giant redwood tree is
    miniscule. The tree is so tiny that you would need over 100,000 seeds to weigh
    one pound, and yet the tree can grow to 360 feet in height, making it the tallest
    measured tree species on the earth. You also start out as minuscule seeds and
    look at you now. The tree only needs earth, air, sunshine and water to fulfill its
    destiny, but you need something in additional to maximize your potential.

    You need to become self-reliant.

    When you are fully self-reliant then all your fears should disappear. To become
    self-reliant you need to pick a goal, something in life to be an expert at. It is like
    planting a deep seed inside you; a wish that will help you grow in life. When you
    are an artisan in some skill the world needs, you never have to worry about your
    survival – people will come to you. The Lean process should help you to select a
    goal that is both good for you and the organization. Everyday then, you do your
    normal job but you also focus on attaining your goal.

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      Norman, thank you for your insightful comments. Lean has become so misunderstood that people must now return to the basics to renew and refresh their understanding. Your comments speak exactly to that.

  2. Mark Bradway says:

    Kevin, Norman, Bob,

    Thank you for your direct simple correction to our view of Lean. We (Leaders and Implementers) have missed the mark and misled those following us. My definition of what I call ‘Simple Lean’ = 1. Develop people 2. To eliminate Waste 3. Which creates Flow (of value.. as defined by customer) and 4. that Satisfies (those) customers is predicated upon Leadership leading. Hopefully, not sounding too harsh, here is where we missed it. Leadership not leading the Lean transformation because they do not understand, either Lean or true Leadership. To right the lean ship we must address the Leadership issue; the Captains of Industry are broken. Who wants to start righting the ship? I for one would like to be part of the solution.

  3. Barry Thomas says:

    Back to basics then TIM WOOD [the seven wastes: Transport, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-processing, Overproduction, Defects].

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      To be accurate (Ohno, TPS, 1988), the seven wastes are: overproduction, waiting, transportation, processing itself (not over-processing), inventory, movement, and making defective products.

  4. Alan Rice says:

    Excellent, Thank You all. Norman, the greatest Lean learning experience for me was my short trip with you to Japan, to see everything, I had read, tried (not always successfully) carried out by the experts was eye opening. The one memory that stands out most is the respect for people at all levels, in all directions at all the factories we visited. Bob, Thank you for that wonderful article. I hope multitudes read it and learn from it. Kind Regards, Alan

  5. Todor says:

    Dear Bob,
    Thank you very much for posting this interesting article. Much appreciated to see people care about differentiating the true meaning of TPS. I have read hundreds of books about TPS and learned to practice it by myself in Toyota. It is really an unique management system. I wonder though why the term “lean” had to be introduced in the first place. Why people did (do) not use TPS? Is it because of being shy to admit that Toyota developed a better management system that we try now to introduce? Or because one may never be sure to have understood it correctly, therefore one is reluctant to say with confidence “we have/follow TPS”? Introduction of such vocabulary leads to the point you are making in the article.

  6. Steven Leuschel says:

    Because those who study generally write well…. Well written books = $$$ for publishers and increased recognition for authors (thought leaders). Increased recognition for authors = more $$$ in consulting, talks, etc. Thought leaders sell more books because they have more of a following from consulting, talks, etc, which = more $$$ for publishers and more $$$ + “thought leadership” for thought leaders…and so the cycle continues. I love your phrase “The Lean-Industrial Complex.”

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