I heard an interesting quote a while back (and I can’t remember the source!). The speaker said something to the effect of:
“The more we try to copy Toyota, the less Toyota-like we are becoming.”
In my Lean career, I’ve heard so many stories of companies copying Toyota or doing something because they read it in a book. A friend recently told me the story of a company that implemented U-shaped assembly lines, “because that’s Lean.” When pressed for more of an explanation, he couldn’t get one.
My friend (who is very experienced with Lean from other companies) then explained to them how a U-shaped cell is particularly handy when a single operator is running multiple machines… but this company had stationary assembly employees (that weren’t balanced anywhere near Takt time).
That shape and layout might also be a benefit for a single supervisor to help a team that’s located inside the U, for improved communication, but this company’s supervisors were in meetings and their office most of the time. So what was the benefit? Why spend the money re-configuring the line?
When you copy, you’re more likely to miss the mark than you are if you actually think through situations yourself. That’s why Toyota execs like calling TPS the “Thinking Production System.” There’s no substitute for thinking, learning from experience, and PDCA… but too many companies want quick answers and copied solutions.
I always challenge my Lean client teams with a few ideas. First, quit asking “What does Lean say we should do about….?” Lean doesn’t say anything. Lean is a set of concepts and principles that we have to think through. I’ve often said, “A U-shaped layout is the best thing, unless it is not.” You have to think about it and consider different alternatives. What Would Toyota Do? Think!
Another thing I challenge them with is always being able to explain “why” we are doing something. “What problem are we solving?” should be the focus, not “What Lean tool are we implementing?”
There are no easy answers, just thinking, and Plan-Do-Check-Act. I guess that’s one reason why I never get bored with this stuff.