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

March 1, 2004
by Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean Learning Center There are far too many definitions and descriptions of lean systems for all of us to be speaking the same language.

by Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean Learning Center

There are far too many definitions and descriptions of lean systems for all of us to be speaking the same language. Therefore, it seems worthwhile to put forward a unifying view of lean systems. Some have interpreted lean as merely a collection of tools, such as 5S, JIT, kanban, and so on. Others have described lean as working people harder, working people smarter, kaizen, or total quality management. Some definitions are wrong and some are just inadequate.

So how can we describe lean systems differently? At a very high level, lean systems give people at all levels of the organization the skills and a shared way of thinking to systematically drive out waste through designing and improving work of activities, connections, and flows. By cultivating the skills of a learning organization, creating an environment of real-time learning nearest to the problem or point of impact, all employees can contribute to the robust success of the firm. This simple and universal definition of lean broadens the scope and required skill set beyond traditional views. Many organizations have had great success using lean systems, regardless of how they defined it, towards creating world-class companies.

What we've learned from Toyota

Much of what we can learn about lean comes from the Toyota Production System. Through more than 50 years of learning and experimentation, Toyota has driven deep into the systematic elimination of waste and has created a system that learns and adapts better than anyone else. Its reputation for management and manufacturing excellence extends well beyond the automotive industry and truly is a benchmark for all operations and manufacturing companies.

One fundamental difference between Toyota and others is the significant involvement of everyone in the improvement process. Many companies we see believe that there are people that do the work and those that solve problems or improve the work. Those that improve the work and processes are usually the least familiar with them, yet the highest paid. With this model of improvement, the decision of what problems to solve first is a major dilemma. Other companies, although only a few, bring everyone into the problem solving and improvement picture, but only on a very infrequent, large-scale event basis. This usually happens as some sort of task-force or cross-functional team. However, if we operate as a lean system, we can have everyone in the organization focused real-time on solving problems and driving waste out of the organization. In the end, we can enjoy both people success and business success greater than our competitors because we are solving more problems and engaging people at every level.

Two researchers, Steven Spears and H. Kent Bowen, have exposed a standardized way of thinking at Toyota that starts with four rules that have formed the foundation of all of its innovative tools and concepts. We have modified the language and presentation of these rules (but not their intent) in an attempt to make them more usable for people:

The Four Rules

1. Structure every activity

2. Clearly connect every customer/supplier

3. Specify and simplify every flow

4. Improve through experimentation at the lowest level possible towards the ideal state

It is easy to read these design rules and think, "We've already done that. We have a book of standards; we've developed process maps for the flows; we know the customer of every process -- so what's new?" Of course, the initial reaction will usually prevent someone from really engaging and learning. This common reaction will shift dramatically if significant time is spent at a Toyota plant. What will then become clear is that the level of depth to which you can take these practices is a thousand times greater than seemed possible with traditional activities above such as process mapping or standards books. For example, a process map may define what request is made between a supplier and customer, but how thoroughly do we actually consider how that connection between the customer and supplier is executed? Is it defined to great detail? Is it so clear that there can be no misinterpretation of the signal? If there is a problem or failure with the signal, does someone know? A process map will just show a box with the activity. The depth to which Toyota applies these rules-in-use to the connection between team leader and team member in comparison to most other companies is well worth exploring.

In your company, what happens when an employee finds a problem or an opportunity? Perhaps you've told you're employees "feel free to come to me with any problems." Is that really a good application of rule number 2 that states clearly connect every customer / supplier? If it were a good application, the connection should be direct between you and your employee and it should be binary so that a customer request — such as help in solving a problem — comes only one way and means only one thing. You may not see this rigor as important, so we will explore what happens when the answer to that question is even slightly ambiguous.

A new employee comes to you with a problem that he doesn't know how to solve. You, full of good intentions, tell the employee to try again so that he can learn. He solves the problem, but in the process inadvertently learns that he should exhaust every possible opportunity before coming to you with the problem. One time, the problem is so critical in timing that it could cost the company millions of dollars, but following what he learned, the employee tries everything he can first. By the time he comes to you, it is too late. Both you and the employee had good intentions, but despite these intentions a major problem occurred. Because this problem was such a catastrophe, it created unwanted attention for that particular employee. As a result, the next time he comes across such a problem, he focuses on sweeping the problem under the rug so that he will not receive all this negative attention. Now, not only does the problem not get attention in a timely manner, but it does not receive any at all, because there is significant ambiguity between the employee and supervisor regarding their problem solving process. It would be a safe bet that every disenfranchised and frustrated employee has a story like this one. It is not enough to have good intentions. You need to drive unbending rules into how your organization will operate or it will always eventually revert to its most closed and self-protecting form.

At Toyota, the customer/supplier relationship is very clear to everyone. The connection between the customer and supplier is binary, so the request and related response has no waste or opportunity for failure. This is not because the right tool happened to solve this problem, but because lean systems thinking was applied through rule number 2: clearly connect every customer/supplier. The employee is a customer of the team leader's supplied problem solving skills, coaching, and support. That is the first part of understanding the rule. Who is the customer and who is the supplier becomes clear and the service or value being supplied is also clear. Most companies that espouse a belief that their supervisors and management support the worker would not have to look far to see the exact opposite of this belief with comments from supervisors such as "you work for me." At Toyota, the employee, as soon as she sees a problem and despite whether or not she can solve it, pulls a cord that signals the team leader. That signal is sent by music that tells the team leader that there is a problem and through a signal board that tells him where the problem exists. The team leader shows up, not sometime but immediately, and says "what is the problem and how can I help?" This is direct and binary. Identifying a "problem" directly and always drives the action to "pull the andon cord," and "pull the andon cord" is always followed by the action of "team leader shows up." This happens around 10,000 times a day in a Toyota plant. Through strong problem solving skills at all levels to support that action, they can solve many more times the problems than any other organization can.

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 Corp. and Harley-Davidson. While at Chrysler, Jamie was a major contributor to the design of the new Jeep Liberty plant in Toledo, Ohio, 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