Lean Tools vs. Culture


IndustryWeek : Lean: Closing the Reality Gap

Here is an article with a link to an upcoming Industry Week webcast (there will be software vendors on the call, you've been warned).

One focus of the webcast is supposed to be a discussion of how companies that truly embrace the lean culture get better performance than those who just adopt some lean tools. That's hard to argue with, since a lot of us realize that the Toyota Production System isn't just about tools, like kanban.

While 90% of the almost 300 manufacturers surveyed related their commitment to Lean, less than 20% of those exhibited the type of comprehensive Lean implementations that would deem them “best-in-class.”

This is in line with an older Jeff Liker quote (I'm paraphrasing the exact numbers here) that 80% of auto suppliers are talking lean, but 5% are actually doing it. It's MUCH easier to talk a good game with lean than it is to actually get there.

Some other data from the Aberdeen Group study:

  • Best-in-class organizations are more dedicated to mastering the basics; (e.g. value stream mapping 68% vs. 23% (industry norm) & 4% (laggards)
  • These same best-in-class companies are implementing Kanbans 73% vs. 24% (industry norm) & 7% (laggards).

Again, this is focused is tools. I'd be curious to see how they are able to measure the “leanness” of a company's culture if they manage to discuss this in their webcast. That seems to be one of the weaknesses of lean assessments, whether it's the Shingo Prize or your company's supplier development organization.

It's much easier to observe lean methods and to measure business results than it is to objectively see a “lean culture.” But, I'd argue you can get a very good sense of the culture by stopping on your plant visit and talking to regular operators and supervisors.

Ask them what happens with employee suggestions. If they say “What's that?” or if they describe an overly bureaucratic process that takes six months to give them an answer, they aren't lean. If the operator says, “I talk to my supervisor about my idea and we try it out. If it makes things better, we use the suggestion and make sure the others know about it, it becomes part of our standard method,” then they are probably on the road to lean.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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