Have you been following the wrong leader for the last 10 or 20 years?

What if your guiding light for Lean management had no experience in industrial engineering-based shop floor kaizen? What if he never had direct responsibility for production and associated metrics? What if he focused on introducing one new Lean tool after another and then guided people to do things that were not necessary, resulting in time and money wasted?  What if he heaped praise on people’s efforts despite them having actually accomplished very little?

Would that be your first choice for a Lean movement leader?

What if your guiding light for Lean management ignored or diminished critically important aspects of Lean management, such as the “Respect for People” principle? What if language and definitions shifted over time to suit his needs? What if when asked about his work as movement leader, he replied “I’ve done my best.” Those backward-looking words should tip-off that you followed the wrong leader. It is better to follow a leader who truly knows kaizen and who is forward-looking: “There are many, many things I can do better.”

If the leader who said “I’ve done my best” was your first choice, then you have likely spent years doing everything except the things that you should have been doing. It would be like learning much of what there is to know about music without actually learning how to play a musical instrument.

It may seem that the Lean movement leader you followed has been helpful. Perhaps in some ways this is so. Many people are led by the Lean Enterprise Institute, the Lean Enterprise Academy, or other prominent organization. Most follow a similar path: They would have you focus on value stream maps, gemba walks, A3 reports, coaching, and, most recently, respect for people. But, following that leader has likely slowed down your improvement efforts. The continuing preponderance of Fake Lean suggests that Lean movement leaders have had limited effectiveness. Organizations have implemented Lean too slowly or have been poorly informed about how to execute a Lean transformation (versus using this extraordinarily simple yet robust model).

Step back and ask: “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” The problem is an inability to produce a wide variety of products in small quantities at low cost. Alternatively, one can say that batch-and-queue processing is the problem, which in turn generates innumerable problems: productivity, cost, quality, time, delivery, and (physical and mental) safety.

clock1The image at right illustrates the time disadvantage that batch-and-queue businesses and hybrid batch-and-queue/Lean businesses possess compared to Lean businesses. They are disconnected from the marketplace (B&Q), or poorly connected (hybrid), and experience slower clock speeds – months and weeks compared to hours and minutes for Lean businesses. Managers, therefore, cannot “feel” the marketplace in step with actual time. Lean transformations that proceed slowly, in part by following the wrong leader, will not erase this disadvantage. Lean transformations that get stuck in the hybrid stage, in part by being led to focus on Lean tools, will never erase this disadvantage. This is where most businesses are today, and that is not good enough because marketplace clockspeed is hours and minutes.

The solution is flow, which  is achieved through industrial engineering-based kaizen. Doing that correctly develops people, their problem-solving skills, and improves processes without disaggregating various components of Toyota’s management system that do little to actually correct the fundamental problem. People’s lives and livelihoods depend on getting it right. Getting it wrong is both disruptive and time-consuming due to continued re-work.

Which leaders should you follow if your desire is to be Toyota-like? I favor following experienced practitioners that have created flow many times, Taiichi Ohno and Chihiro Nakao, and academics who have meticulously studied Toyota’s management and production system such as Yasuhiro Monden and Takahiro Fujimoto.

The first step is to learn the basics. Then, practice the basics every day to understand and master the basics. Once you do that, you will learn the Lean principles and practices that the masters knew were necessary to achieve flow. I recommend that you do three things: 1) read the books listed below, 2) put what you learn into practice, and 3) repeat 1) and 2) forever to get where we need to go.

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