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Features By: Michael Ballé & Art Smalley

Smalley and Ballé discuss the spirit of lean thinking

balle smalley spirit lean

FEATURE - Two weeks ago, the authors shared their thoughts on mindset. In part 2, they discuss how to grasp the true spirit of lean.



Words: Michael Ballé and Art Smalley



In Part 1 of this article we mentioned how the four questions associated with understanding paradigms can be used to clearly explain the spirit of lean. Here they are:

  1. what is to be observed and scrutinized;
  2. the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject;
  3. how these questions are to be put;
  4. how the results of investigations should be interpreted.

 Firstly, what is to be observed and scrutinized? The explicit answer in TPS is ‘making things’ (monozukuri) – and, specifically, making things to benefit society. Indeed, one of the key pillars of the Toyota Way is genchi genbutsu: go and see for yourselves. The real place, the real parts, the people very strongly frame the way TPS is conducted because it immediately excludes the meetings and PowerPoint presentations that are the staple of management diets.

Furthermore, on the shop floor, TPS concerns itself explicitly with four main fields:

  • Customer satisfaction in terms of lowest cost, highest quality and shortest lead time;
  • Cost reduction;
  • Waste elimination;
  • Safety.

Each of these fields can open up in a multitude of further topics. For instance, cost reduction breaks down into direct labor savings, capital expenditure savings, and cash improvements from stock reduction, and so on. Safety includes prevention of accidents, prevention of professional illnesses, reduction of mental and physical burden for operators, etc. This is not to say that perfect solutions are found immediately, particularly since, unhappily, some trade-offs do appear, but that these topics will be relentlessly investigated for better understanding and on-going experimentation.

Next, the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked. The previous topics are explored in certain ways, which are specific to lean. Unique to lean is a hierarchy of questions. For instance at the higher level we will find:

  1. How will you satisfy the customer and make a profit?
  2. What are your main problems in production? - which breaks down into:
  3. How will you build in quality into the product?
  4. How will you deliver 100% just-in-time?
  5. How will you stabilize process availability 100%
  6. How will you get standardized work 100%
  7. How will you develop natural work teams leaders?
  8. How will your company sustain and improve? 
Furthermore, within each field of investigations, questions can get very specific. For example, on the topic of taking variation out of operators’ cycles, non-value-added work is looked at in great detail, such the famous 7 wastes:
  1. Are we producing too much or too soon?
  2. Are operators waiting for parts to arrive or for a machine to finish a cycle?
  3. Are we keeping conveyance to a minimum?
  4. Are we over-processing parts?
  5. Do we keep on the workstation more parts and components than the minimum to get the job done?
  6. Do we keep motion that does not contribute directly to value-added to a minimum?
  7. Do we avoid the need for rework or repairs?

Such questions have been around for so long that it is easy to forget their importance. Many a “lean” consultant has started a training session by writing the 7 wastes on a board, and never returned to them again because they were too busy with the tools.

Yet, in the very first sensei visit one of the authors experienced, the TPS master stood a good long while looking at a workstation, pointed out the 7 wastes, and then discussed briefly with the operator and asked him to place a component container a few inches closer to the point of use, watching again for several minutes, and moving the container slightly to the right – to the complete dismay of senior managers assembled to learn lean from one the world’s experts.

Because they didn’t share the same mindset, the managers completely missed the point, and were actually offended by what they felt was a dismissive treatment from the sensei. In fact, the TPS master was demonstrating the mindset in focusing on the workstation (what is to be observed), demonstrating the 7 wastes (what kind of questions to ask), and experimenting immediately (how these questions are to be put).

Thirdly, how these questions are to be put is another strong element of the TPS mindset that largely diverges from common managerial practice.

TPS has a definite position on this subject as well, but it is often implicit in the way the senseis demonstrate their knowledge. To start with, the previous questions are rarely asked outside a relational context between senpai (teacher) and kohai (student).

The question does not exist ‘in itself’, but is a precise problem, specifically chosen by the master for the student in the hope of both resolving the problem and developing the person. The problem can be either very large, such as Ohno walking into a large warehouse at Toyota Gosei and challenging the staff of managers to “get rid of this warehouse and in one year I will come back and look!”, or very small, such as Fujio Cho puzzling over how an assistant sorts her e-mail. However, in all cases, they are problems given to somebody to resolve, and not injunctions of what to do.

The sensei rarely does more than throwing in the general principle to apply in order to point the way.

Furthermore, there is a prescribed way to attack any question in the TPS mindset; as the Toyota Way prescribes: grasp problems and analyze root causes by exploring variances between goals and current situations until root causes are found by means of first-hand investigation. As Ohno would recommend: “observe the production floor without preconceptions with a blank mind. Repeat ‘why’ five times to every matter.”

It sounds simple enough, but this is in practice extremely rigorous and difficult for most people, who tend to jump in with solutions from their own experiences.

Making explicit what the standard or goal is, explaining on the shop floor the difference with the current situation, and asking ‘why’ five times do not come naturally, and require a pretty deep commitment to the TPS mindset.

Our mind tends to naturally chase the first idea that comes to us and ‘go around’ the problem. Forcing oneself to face problems fundamentally is a skill in itself, and a core ingredient of TPS. As mentioned previously, this skill is usually developed in a trainer/trainee relationship, and not ‘in general’.

Lastly, how these questions are to be put involves an element of quick experimentation.

As Ohno once said, “’data’ is of course important in manufacturing, but I place greatest emphasis on ‘facts’.” Facts, in the TPS contexts, are events, which you have yourself witnessed at the real place, with the real parts and the real people. In other words, the questions are to be put in reality, not in thought experiments on paper. 

This is a very strong constraint that explains a wide difference between the ‘go and try’ typical response of the TPS masters, and the in-the-room paper analyses of many ‘lean’ study groups. The question is therefore not to be put abstractly, but in real conditions.

The way to put questions in the TPS mindset is to conduct simple experiments where the question can be answered in practice and not in theory. Again, this is a mental revolution for most of us trained to Cartesian analysis.

In TPS ‘getting your hands dirty’ has a very literal meaning, because, ultimately, the way to ask a question is to run a shop floor experiment, which will highlight the problem.

Some of these experiments have been codified in ‘workshops’ such as SMED, flow-and-layout and so on, and consequently, many mistake them for ‘tools’, or ways to obtain a result. In reality, these ‘tools’ are nothing but observation practices that allow for a hands-on understanding of issues, and therefore lead to a concrete resolution. ‘Solving’ the problem by getting the result without having rigorously explained the situation will not get good marks from a TPS master.

Finally, how the questions are to be put is very much linked to how the results of investigations should be interpreted. TPS makes a clear distinction between ‘data’ and ‘facts’.

It recognizes that “a full understanding of situations and problems requires extensive study and the gathering of all relevant quantitative and qualitative facts with genchi genbutsu: go to the first-line and see for ourselves.” TPS’s obsession with standards should not be confused with the goal of applying one-size-fits-all solutions.

In fact, the opposite is true. In the TPS mindset, as outlined by Eiji Toyoda, “there is no fixed mold for making decisions. The key is to study the problem thoroughly and to decide what is believed best.” Indeed, it’s preferable to consider a wide range of options when answering the questions and designing countermeasures. 

Interpretation of results is essentially linked to kaizen continuous improvement. On the one hand rapid experimentation is encouraged, on the other hand rigorous measure of the results of these experiment is required.

In that sense, the spirit of lean starts with local performance measures at each production cell.

What is, then, the ‘soul’ one has to inject into the Buddha image? It’s the kaizen spirit – the engagement of each employee so they come up with smart suggestions to eliminate waste in their own work, and to collaborate better with their colleagues, particularly across functions to eliminate waste in the processes.

In the taylorist mindset, it’s easy to interpret lean as a bunch of tools that, applied to every process, will deliver superior performance – but if there is one thing the past 20 years have shown clearly is that this simply doesn’t work beyond what we commonly refer to as ‘low-hanging fruit’.

Eiji Toyoda, the man who built the Toyota we now know from a bankrupt local company, went to Ford and returned with a leaflet about a suggestion program. He took it to heart and developed a management system entirely devoted to generating this unique moment, when the employee makes a discretionary effort to contribute to improving the company. The rest is scaffolding to reach this moment of truth.

Ironically, employee suggestion programs are for the most part, to this day, still poorly understood and interpreted in the Fordist way, whereas they are the very soul of the Toyota Production System: get every team member to think deeply about their job and partake in the joy of creation through realizing their own suggestions.



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