The Roots of Lean


    by Mike Lopez

    Today and tomorrow, I have the pleasure of taking part in a Lean Six Sigma summit being hosted by our corporation. One of today's presenters was Mike Micklewright. He posed many challenging and introspective questions to our lean champions. One of his best points was that lean is not about copying Toyota and rolling out a set of cookie-cutter tools. He suggested that the roots of lean lie in three fundamental principles:

    1. Elimination of waste
    2. Focus on cashflow
    3. Respect for people

    From these three principles, Toyota systematically invented the lean system that we hold in high regard today. Although the three principles are debatable, I like the point of his thinking.

    He talked a bit about how American companies used to embrace TQM, then moved to Six Sigma. He mentioned that Toyota started on this journey several decades ago. It occurred to me that there is a fundamental difference between the American experience and the Toyota experience. In the Toyota experience, they learned a basic attitude from Ford, Deming, Juran, and others. With this attitude, they continuously used basic principles to invent customized solutions for unique problems. Over decades, they continuously labored to perfect and systemize their countermeasures.

    In the U.S. experience, we saw TQM, QFD, Six Sigma, and Lean roll out in our corporations as systemized best practices of leading companies. These systemized “best in class” practices consist of toolsets supported by underlying principles. Is there a big difference between TQM, QFD, Six Sigma, and Lean? Personally, I don't think so. The underlying principles all came from Ford, Deming, and Juran. The problem is each generation of “innovators” that has stamped his or her copyrighted brand onto quality has also added tools and slightly different language to help sell a new movement. Rather than build on the fundamentals (like Toyota does), we have been relearning everything over and over again. Sounds like waste to me. If only we could embrace something and commit to it for decades, we would have plenty of U.S. companies that are just like Toyota right now.

    My two questions to blog readers:

    1. Are there presently any U.S. companies out there with successful “home grown” quality programs built on fundamentals?

    2.What do you consider to be the three or four fundamental principles of lean and quality?

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    1. Mike… your commentary is right on… in my opinion! we’ve made several starts (not necessarily false starts… just starts) on all of these ‘movement’ ideas consultants have sold us on or a lucky strike on a TQM book or Six Sigma green belt. Anyway, we’ve experienced some success with these with a lot of effort put into them. We’re now focusing on the fundamentals (were stating them as 1. continuous improvement and 2. respect for people) of lean and are confident that we’ll have long lasting success.


    2. 1. Meeting customer needs (internal/external, shareholders and community)
      2. Respect for people

      ** Guided by the Rules in Use **

      Just in case someone is not familiar with the Rules: 1. Highly Defined Activities 2. Clear and Binary Customer/Supplier Connections 3. Simple and Direct Flowpaths and 4. Continuous Improvement using the Scientific Method.

    3. Mike;

      Good post. We can’t change a culture to continuous improvement without respect for the people. We’re working on reinforcing the desired behaviors that influence continuous improvements and seeing some significant changes. It seems simple but most everyone starts work everyday wanting to produce a quality job and we’re responsible to give them the training, tools, and processes to be successful.

    4. I have always believed Toyota simply took the fundamental ideas observed in the U.S. and applied them in such a way to address the problems and needs of the time. Now, because they adhere to the basic principles, their system is able to evolve and grow as the environment changes. I teach companies to use the tailor the concepts of removing waste and continuously improving to their situation, rather than copying what others have done.


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