Beyond Lean: Building Sustainable Business and People Success Through New Ways of Thinking

by Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean Learning Center

The leverage of new thinking

You may read the previous story and think, "OK, so I must design a direct and binary problem-solving link between myself and my employees." This is true, but it is just the start as our organizations are complex and have thousands, perhaps millions, of interconnections, thousands of flows (including material, people and information), and millions of activities. It's actually a daunting problem, and there appears to be no place to start. This is especially true for companies that have traditionally tried to design everything they do in a conference room, as many re-engineering efforts have attempted.

Toyota has either invented or led in the development and implementation of many tools over several generations. It started with jidoka. The initial concept came from the invention of the automatic loom that allowed the loom to stop as soon as the thread would break, allowing one worker to support 12 machines instead of just one, dramatically dropping the cost of weaving. This happened in 1902 and the Toyoda family and Toyota Motor Corp. have never stopped learning. Their success comes from the successful application of ideas such as just-in-time, kanban, andon, heijunka, quality circles, single minute exchange of dies, supermarkets, and so on. This is a long list. Are they just lucky? What is the common thread that ties this all together? Their ability to adopt these ideas, whether generated internally or externally, is made possible by a drive to learn. This drive to learn means they are focused on whatever will help them move closer toward their ideal state and nothing else.

Some of the tools mentioned above have been applied with rigor inside many companies, both automotive and non-automotive manufacturing, and even within non-manufacturing and administrative processes. Some success is often found through the application and adoption of these tools. Two results are inevitable through this approach, however. First, companies do not reach nearly the level of success desired or come close to Toyota's success. This leads people to either abandon their lean efforts or to search aimlessly for new ideas or programs to adopt. Second, companies do not find their lean improvements sustainable. This leads many people to conclude that lean simply doesn't work in their industry or even conclude that it doesn't work outside Japan. Both of these results can be avoided by recognizing lean not as a collection of tools but as a way of thinking across your company.

While oversimplification of lean will not serve you well, when people ask for the shortest possible definition of lean, the answer given is, "standardized thinking." This means that all employees in your company have a shared way of thinking that serves them regardless of the problems they face. This in turn means that if a problem or opportunity surfaces that is not addressed by the traditional tools of lean, the shared way of thinking can address the problem directly and put in place powerful solutions. This is how most of the traditional lean tools probably surfaced in the first place. Lean and TPS are not tools that were put in place; instead, those tools were responses to the problems and opportunities found. Those responses were so powerful because they were well understood by people using shared thinking and because the shared thinking allowed those solutions to work in concert with previous solutions as well as the solutions and tools to come.

Operational and manufacturing companies that have found significant success through or because of their manufacturing assets can be found to have good strategic decision-making. Most studies of strategy, and particularly manufacturing or operations strategy, find that more important than the particular individual decisions being made is whether those decisions are being made with consistency. There are two ways to create this consistency. One method is to have every important decision made by one person. This is common and can be effective in smaller organizations during times of crisis, but can cripple a company in the long-term. The second method is to have all employees use a shared way of thinking and then make decisions at the point closest to the information needed. This shared thinking will create consistency throughout the organization, making the manufacturing or operations of the company more strategic and able to contribute more to the overall success of the company. Few companies get to this level.

The foundation is defining lean as a way of thinking. The next level is defining and clarifying that thinking. The strategic goal is to produce exactly what the customer wants, when they want it, at the price they want, with zero waste, and with everyone safe. The question then is what shared thinking, defined by rules and principles, will be most effective at meeting that strategic goal.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and brings successful and varied experiences of lean transformation as both a practitioner and facilitator. Jamie was part of the development, training and implementation of the Chrysler Operating System, a widely-benchmarked lean change program spearheaded by Lean Learning Center partner Dennis Pawley. He most recently was at DTE Energy, parent company to Detroit Edison and MichCon, as a lean thought leader to help build the first lean program in a utility and to transform the operations, leadership and thinking of the utility industry towards a philosophy of lean systems. He is also a co-founder and director of Rev! Motorcycles, a start-up company that connects design and manufacturing to the customer to build-to-order powersports products such as off-road motorcycles. He also has a wide-range of operational experiences, including production, maintenance, product engineering, manufacturing engineering and production control. Most of this was experienced while at Chrysler Corporation and Harley-Davidson. While at Chrysler, Jamie was a major contributor to the design of the new Jeep Liberty plant in Toledo, OH, a major new asset for Chrysler and their first designed using lean concepts. Jamie can be contacted at 248-478-1480 or [email protected]

Other articles in this 5-part series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

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