tomatoHow do you grow tomatoes? If you are a backyard gardener, you buy plants (or maybe raise from seed), plant, tend, harvest. Simple as that. However, while the resulting harvest may be acceptable for one’s needs, it will surely be less flavorful and less bountiful than it could have been.

Knowledge of the details of growing tomatoes – growth cycle, soil composition, soil chemistry, sunlight, temperature, humidity, watering, fertilizer, pollination, garden pests, ripening process, etc. – would yield much better production; both more and better fruit. The difference between what an amateur backyard tomato gardener knows and what a professional tomato grower knows is dramatic.

So, while amateur gardening knowledge and practices may be sufficient to feed a family (with ugly seconds going to friends), it is woefully inadequate when it comes to the competitive business of selling tomatoes. The details matter, which is what professional growers know.

A similar situation exists when it comes to Lean management. Many people’s knowledge of Lean operates at something close to an amateur level, even though they are in the business of selling products and services. The business of selling and competing against other businesses requires the rapid development of Lean skills and capabilities to a professional level. How do you do that?

Since there are few capable Lean leaders to learn from, people must do the hard work of finding information from various credible sources and carefully studying that information. But one cannot spend too much time studying before putting ideas into practice (batch processes), because products and services need to be sold to customers every day. Therefore, quick study must be followed by quick practice. There must be rapid, daily cycling between study and practice. As the basics are mastered, the focus turns to near 100 percent practice. In other words, see what works by trying it out. Rapidly explore the solution space by testing, experimenting, and prototyping. Not only will improvements occur more quickly and frequently, but so will the learning.

Too often, we see Lean practiced in a batch manner; i.e. dreadfully slow value stream mapping events followed by even slower improvement activities. The time from ideas to actual improvement is to far long. Predictably, the resultant learning will be low and slow, and the “harvest” – improvements that actually impact the customer and which translate to improved sales – will be meager. Possessing amateur Lean knowledge and skills in service of professional business activities is incongruous.

It seems that many people today think that a substantial reduction in set-up time or lead-time, an order of magnitude improvement in quality, or the creation of a flowline is a big accomplishment and marks the end of their efforts. In reality, it is only the beginning step towards professional Lean practice. These improvements must be further improved upon. More learning and people development exists in reducing set-up time from 9 minutes to 8 than from 2 hours to nine minutes. One’s observation skills and ability to do hands-on experiments and prototyping improve because it becomes increasingly more challenging to find ever-smaller improvements – and doing so in ways that respect people.

And then, one day, you discover a completely new way to do the work, rapidly improving that, and wracking your brain to find ever-smaller improvements. This is what distinguishes professional Lean practitioners from amateur Lean practitioners.

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