Lean And Not Mean

Pascal van Cauwenberghe recommended me to read The Toyota Way by Jeffrey K. Liker. I can see why now :-) I resonate with many of the ideas and paradoxes, articulated much more clearly than I can yet. I’ll go into some of the ideas with quotes from the book below – I find so much to quote I recommend you read it for yourself if you’re interested in the topic. The Toyota Way book focuses mostly on the Toyota Production System. As Liker says:

I want to be clear, that the Toyota Production System is not the Toyota Way. TPS is the most systematic and highly developed example of what the principles of the Toyota Way can accomplish.

I find The Toyota Way easy to read, it lends itself well to be read chapter by chapter while I’m sort of in the midst of a tornado this week: moving to a new house in Eindhoven, doing two consecutive nights of game workshops (Who’s dropped the Ball with Marc Evers for xp.be in Leuven, and Game Of Goose with Nynke Fokma for Ordina in Nieuwegein), as well as working with ZeelandNet on their next round of improvement through Agile Software Development .

Misconception: TPS is a set of tools

with mysterious sounding acronyms like 5S, JIT, Kanban. Unfortunately I encounter many (project) managers who are looking for ‘tools’ – handy spreadsheets, planning forms, testing-tools and work practices that will solve all of their problems. Some ‘tools’ can enhance your productivity enormously (e.g. Test Driven Development). If you want to go beyond that, you have to go beyond the practices into the principles – that is the way I see eXtreme Programming, its values and practices form a system. I often ask people:

Do you value the practices, or do you practice the values?

The Toyota Way is, like XP, an evolving system of values and practices. Fujio Cho, President of Toyota Motor Corporation is quoted saying:

Many good American companies have respect for individuals, and practice kaizen and other TPS tools. But what is important is having all the elements together as a system. It must be practiced every day in a very consistent manner – not in spurts – in a concrete way on the shop floor.

The book proves this principle applies to practice with stories about the birth of Lexus and the Prius. These stories show the work practices at Toyota continuously improve. Toyota maintains, even in times of prosperity, a crisis mentality. When there is no crisis, one is created, so participants continue to be challenged. These challenges can only be overcome by continuous learning through (amongst other things) questioning assumptions and embracing change.

Misconception: Lean equals Mean

A common mistake about the Toyota Production System (TPS) is, especially when it is called Lean Manufacturing, that it is mean. Recently, a session about Lean Thinking and the Theory of Constraints Pascal van Cauwenberghe and Rob Westgeest submitted to SPA2005 was rejected. One of the reviewers commented:

This reminds me too much of the Six Sigma style methodology we are implementing at name of company witheld that I just hate!

Six Sigma is a statistical process for optimizing large manufacturing processes. Many small-scale software and hardware companies are now applying it on processes which are too small to consider applying statistics to.

TPS is not like Six Sigma. It emphatically calls on the creativity and spirit of the people involved to learn and solve problems. Terms like Eliminate Waste and Lean are rapidly interpreted by some people as ‘downsizing’ – I think that view is short-sighted:

Eliminating waste means eliminating steps that do not add value for the customer. This means only value-creating and value-adding activities remain. This leads eventually to high-customer satisfaction and a long-term relationship with the customer, which means for Toyota a stable and growing stream of revenue, leading to high profit margins, a large cash-reserve and long-term job security for the people working at Toyota. As the book says:

Lean is about developing principles that are right for your organization and diligently practicing them to achieve high performance that continues to add value to customers and society. This, of course, means being competitive and profitable.

I see how many of the principles apply to my projects – there are many similarities with Agile Software Development and Agile Business Consultancy. I’ll ruminate some more about that offline and possibly come back to that later.

Comments are closed.