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Competing Definitions and Outcomes of Lean

By Graphic Products Editorial Staff

Lean concepts help make manufacturers more organized and operate more efficiently

Editor's note: This article was published as the lead story in Quality Digest July 27, 2016. It was written by Gwendolyn Galsworth, Ph.D., who for 30 years has focused on codifying the visual workplace concepts, principles, and technologies into a single, coherent sustainable framework of knowledge. She founded Visual Thinking Inc. in 1991, and in 2005 she launched The Visual-Lean Institute.

Does lean have a clearly delineated limit? When a company starts out on that path, should it expect an endpoint, a completion, an arrival? Is it a forever commitment, or is it a bounded outcome that companies can achieve and then move on? In short, is lean a destination or a process?

These aren't philosophical questions but practical, hard-nosed issues that a company must address before it can legitimately commit to a journey of change—or before it can be confidently readied to invest the considerable resources such a journey will entail. Let’s examine the current state of lean in this regard—or should we say the current “array of runaway lean.”

The journey started for me in 1983, the year I joined Productivity Inc. as its lead consultant and principal developer of methods coming out of Toyota. Back then Just-In-Time (JIT) ruled—grounded in a handful of very specific Toyota-based methods: quality at the source; (an approach to mistake proofing); single-minute exchange of dies (SMED) and quick changeover; producing to Takt Time; and pull or Kanban systems. Interestingly, cellular design and standard work went unnoticed at the time. They were too deeply embedded, and it would be several more years before they were specifically noted or named.

The decades came and went, as did many hands and minds, companies, and practitioners. Each fashioned this basic set of elements into something they wanted and could understand. Largely, two powerful forces were at work. The first were the limitations and preferences of Western thought leaders who, rooted in their own personal understanding, taught the concepts and methods. The second was the muscle of innovation, a knack well deployed in the West to adapt anything not fully understood so that it could nevertheless be useful and—we told ourselves—better.

It’s not hard to see the positive and not-so-positive synergy between these two fault lines—limited understanding and uninhibited tweaking.

Busy Work or Benefits?

The passage of 36 years that brought us to now—2016—has produced many benefits. A great number of organizations on every industrialized continent are currently engaged in serious and sincere journeys of lean, 5S, and process and continuous improvement (aka kaizen). In essence, they have accepted the success formula that western pundits have marketed. That has already produced great good, due in large part to the tremendous distance that had to be traveled toward improvement—lots of low-hanging fruit. We covered a large chunk of that distance and thought we'd arrived. Progress was made.

But that also brought us smack up against hidden deficits that had accumulated over those same 36 years.

In far too many cases, a company’s progress was referred to a tick-box protocol of application options—the application of a list of tools and (more recently) a list of principles. It’s hard to argue with that protocol or its lists because so many companies have enjoyed either a modicum or a great deal of benefit from them. 

But look at the many places pundits have suggested are the right starting point: cellular design, training competency, employee empowerment, a team of certified CI specialists, organizational readiness, humility, 5S, an improvement infrastructure, standard work, senior and middle management commitment, and so on.

You know this list. No one thing is of prime importance. They are all important, nearly equally. Where and how do we begin? Where and how do we continue? What is the starting gate? Where is the finish line? Good questions. Tough questions. And yet, when you ask any of these companies’ leaders what they are doing, they are likely to say that they are doing one thing: lean. But are they?

False Rivals

The world of lean is grappling with sharp illogic that is creating rumblings among the ranks—and uneasiness in the boardroom. The inconsistency and muddled thinking of the past three decades have had an effect. On the one hand, some of us see lean as a known and knowable destination, closely defined and achievable through a tight formulaic sequence of application. Others believe that lean has become synonymous with continuous improvement—or as Jones and Womack stated, “the pursuit of perfection.” This is lean as a never-ending process, similar to continuous improvement and without a hard edge.

This muddle troubles me because I am a practitioner with allegiance to two worlds—but maybe not the two you think. One is the world of what works: what helps companies actually move forward, stay in business, succeed, and forge ahead—a world of practical inputs and knowable outputs. The other is the world of words and meaning: what things mean, how terms are defined, how meaning adjusts and lends us strength, how meaning can erode and throw us off track, and how definitions can get us back on track again.

The dilemma of the two leans is the result of its actual use (and the inevitable adaptations that must follow), and a definition free-for-all. No single entity is in charge of either. No high priest can declare which is correct and which is not. So I suggest that leaders begin by answering this question: What does growth mean for my company? The answer can't be a canned response. It must be derived from what you know about your company and what it needs. That will lead you to select an improvement technology designed to meet that need and achieve that growth. The same answer also shows you how to redeploy the resources released by the success of the improvement technology you selected.

Addressing the single question, “What does growth mean for my company?” can offer insights that will prevent a company from traveling down an improvement road that is wrong for the enterprise. The question protects you from getting caught in provocative and nearly unanswerable pondering about whether there are limits to lean. It permits you instead to stay focused on your own company’s wealth and well-being, and the path for moving forward.

For additional information on improving safety and productivity at your facility with lean manufacturing techniques, visit Graphic Products' Lean Manufacturing resource hub.