Don’t Copy: There Is No “Instant Pudding”


One of the things I get frustrated with is people who want to take shortcuts with Lean. There are some who are only interested in copying and taking the easy path to yummy Lean goodness. You see this in the various LinkedIn discussion groups, in the Lean Enterprise Institute forums, and sometimes in private emails I receive via the blog.

I'll again fall back on the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming who once said:

“There is no instant pudding.”

Yet so many people look for it… Mmmmm…. butterscotch pudding….

Honestly, have you had instant pudding (I'm not singling out Jell-O here, it could apply to any brand)? It's faster… it's easier to make… but it just doesn't have the right consistency of real pudding. A few weeks ago, I tried making an instant version of a classic British custard… it just wasn't the same as some real custard I had cooked from scratch.

By the way, here's a nice Quality Progress article that elaborates on the theme: “Forget Silver Bullets And Instant Pudding.” With a longer version of the story:

A PERSON once wrote a letter to W. Edwards Deming and asked for the formula to quality improvement. The person offered to pay whatever price Deming required. This led to what has become one Deming's most famous quotes: “There is no instant pudding.”1

I was so tempted to give that answer when I received an email last week asking about implementing Lean in hospital laboratories, asking for “best practices, proven tactics, etc.” I'm all for helping people, but it would have done no good for me to spoon feed him answers in a return email. I'm all for sharing, hell I've published articles and talked about this in my book Lean Hospitals: Improving Quality, Patient Safety, and Employee Satisfaction and there's an archived webinar video of me talking about lean laboratories online.

Without going into too many details, part of my frustration with this person's email was that they were working for a hospital where I had coached a laboratory through a lean transformation and he showed zero interest in learning about what was going on. He showed zero signs of having done any research… now that he's at a new hospital, he came look for easy answers and best practices.

I'm not saying you have to completely reinvent the wheel. Yes, you can learn from other organizations, but you also have learn basic Lean principles and try to figure it out for yourself. You can be inspired by others, but you shouldn't copy them.

My point is not to say “don't email me to talk about Lean.” Nine times out of 10, I end up having a nice exchange with readers who email. What I'm requesting is that people not email me looking for cheap, easy answers and “proven best practices” that you can just jam into place. That doesn't fly.

Changing to a related topic, I was co-presenting earlier this year with a person from ThedaCare and she didn't cringe at all when I said that people should read the book On the Mend: Revolutionizing Healthcare to Save Lives and Transform the Industry, but they shouldn't copy. I said:

“Learn from ThedaCare, but don't copy them.”

People often love to say “but we're different” (as an excuse to not change, when it suits them) but yet they (generally) want to copy others. You can't have it both ways. Yes, your organization is different… but not totally different. Hence, the middle ground between reinventing the wheel and blindly copying others. The sweet spot is in the middle, I'd argue.

There was one other specific example in a LinkedIn group (I'm going to spend less time reading these groups), where somebody from a hospital wrote a group asking for best practices for how to apply Lean to a physician credentialing process.

I wrote back to the group suggesting that the only effective thing would be for this person (at least as a start) to value stream map their own process, looking for waste and opportunities for improvement. You can't go looking for tips and ideas if you don't understand your own process first. The beauty of the Lean methodology is that the methods for analysis and observation so are basic and so powerful IF YOU APPLY THEM (sorry for shouting). Hospitals have been trying to copy best practices forever, before Lean came on the scene, and that clearly didn't work.

She wrote back, in part, with her excuse for not doing that:

“…the credentialing person was thrown into the position with little knowledge and training, so we don't even know if we're on the right track, and didn't want to recreate the wheel if someone was willing to share theirs. Thanks for the input though!”

OK, forget Lean — they have far deeper problems if they're just throwing people into jobs without the right background AND they're not training them properly.

They don't know if they're on the right track? There's an easy answer to that one: clearly not.

Again, they shouldn't have to “recreate the wheel” but it comes across as an excuse to be lazy.

Too harsh?   What do you think? What do you see going on out there, in your organization or others?

Do you like instant pudding better than the stuff you cook (or make from scratch)??

Maybe we should make a parody audio, with Mike Micklewright, of a fake Dr. Deming's Instant Pudding commercial?

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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.


  1. In my view, one of the main reasons that we don’t copy lean tools blindly is that we need to go through the learning process for ourselves. It’s only by learning first hand that we gain the knowledge needed to grow to the next level.
    As you recommend, starting with a value stream map teams will take the similar approach to a problem, but we have their own meaningful experience learning how lean applies to them.

  2. The desire for shortcuts is a ubiquitous part of human existence (e.g. lottery games, “quick hits” and “silver bullets” in business, etc.). And so it is with Lean management as well. I always tell people that learning Lean well is very similar to learning how to play a musical instrument well. It requires daily practice, for years, to the point at which you can start to understand the nuances and details – which then gives you entry into the realm of playing the music even better. In both cases, it’s so worth the effort, but that does not square with the immediate results and rewards that most people seek. The personal motivation and commitment to learn Lean well is, as we all know, quite rare. But when the motivation and commitment are there, people happily create their own wheel.

  3. This reminds me of game planning in the world of sports. Back in the day you would not prepare for the wishbone the way you would for a traditional running or passing team. You may watch film but until you actually engage in the process, the ability to adapt will only be maximized through “learning by doing.” Although cultures are different and the tools available are the same, you, Andy and Bob make great points that the experience, practice and real life engagement of the here and now are what builds towards lean success. As you have noted in other posts, Lean becomes LAME, when looking for short cuts. There are no short cuts to changing the DNA of a culture into one of successful continuous improvement.

    Thanks for a great post.

  4. Excellent comments by the first three posters. I’ll offer a thought that, perhaps Mark, will help bring your blood pressure back down. :) Remember the days when people refused to believe that lean would work in a hospital setting? Now people are asking for quick and easy ways to implement it. That suggests that people now accept the fact that lean delivers value for hospitals–they want it. Let’s be thankful for this not insignificant success that health care lean practitioners have achieved!

    • Dale – you win the award for finding a silver lining in the situation :-)

      One of my fears, related to this, is that Lean becomes “trendy” and organizations start doing it just because others do it… which seems like it would lead to copying, etc. and this dynamic.

      It’s better than nobody accepting Lean as an improvement method.

  5. Mark – excellent posting and one of my favorite topics for discussion.

    Continuous Improvement is the of the best of examples of people not understanding of what they speak – there are no magic pills, no silver bullets, no short-cuts worth taking, no books that have all the answers or consultants that can do all of the work for you and your organization – end of story.

    So the real question is… Do you want to improve or do you want to talk about improvement?

    Improving is not about lean or six sigma, it doesn’t matter if you use a dot matrix or box plot, if you call it 5S or 6S, DMAIIC or DMADV, if you use excel sheets or post-it notes – Improving is about finding what doesn’t work and then having the courage and fortitude to do something different.

    Improving is a choice, a path, a series of conversations; it is the work tackled by teams, it is creating space for the customer to be heard, it is about what we do and what we don’t do – improving is not for the impatient or faint of heart.

    As with all things, if it were easy – it would already be done. Improving is about moving past the easy, the PC and the comfortable; improving is getting down to what is really getting in the way AND then doing something different.

    Maybe we should rebrand Continuous Improvement to Always Improving?!

  6. You had a podcast with Steven Spear a while back that really hit home with me when he talked about owning a football team where you can copy the best plays from the best teams while having the best players and still not win because of a lack of discipline. (Mark’s edit – was it this podcast? I did two with Spear…)

    I am just under 3 years on my Lean journey and read a lot of books, articles, and blogs to help me understand it a lot better. I have networked too to help with me learning. I try to put this info into perspective not to be copied but to understand what is possible and to figure out the thinking behind the improvements made. It is too bad if people are asking to blindly implement your advice instead of seeking to understand the mental models behind the changes.

    I love how Toyota believes a project is a failure if the problem solving process is not followed yet they still get the desired results (Sobek/Smalley). Too often people want the result and do not want to engage in the problem solving process. Copying is not a problem solving process!

  7. People in general want to do the right thing, many of this “instant pudding people” may not even realize that they are on the wrong track, by any chance do you have something along the lines of “top ten sings that you are a tool head” questions that help us reflect if what we are trying to implement is principle based or we simply copying tools that we see in other organizations.
    As individual it is hard to acknowledge that we may be on the wrong track, and that what we are doing is but a superficial changes. I cannot help to reflect to my starting years on the lean journey, and how tool based my mentality was, and how many instant pudding solutions I tried to implement

    anyone want to start a intervention group? Instant pudding anonymous?

  8. I can certainly understand your blood pressure rising. It’s a familiar and frustrating theme.

    There’s actually a perverse kind of logic when you put “we’re different” and “what can we copy” together:
    …We don’t want to put the effort into learning foundational principles deeply and building from there, so we must copy…
    …Since we’re not identical to the source we’re copying from, it won’t work, therefore…
    …We’re different, it won’t work here. Whew, dodged that “lean” bullet!

    But that logic is predicated on an unwillingness to learn. It takes us back to Deming, principle 13: “Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement”.

    If people aren’t prepared to commit and learn and do the hard work of changing themselves, their organizations cannot and will not change.

    Or, as the old joke goes: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?
    Answer: One, but the lightbulb has to want to change.

    How many lean change agents does it take to transform an organization?

  9. I love the Deming response about pudding. In my world, Lean only takes hold once the employees are free to think about the processes they work in, and are given the training, authority and are held accountable for continuously improving the work they are doing. When someone is asking for “proven” recipes, employees have none of these empowering intangibles. Employees amaze me every day when they know they can improve the work they do without being ordered to. This is not true when they are held to the same expectations as the chefs who created the recipe they are ordered to copy, but aren’t empowered to create the recipe themselves..

  10. Unfortunately too often in the U.S. we take a quick fix approach rather than long-term, sustainable, continuing efforts that never accept a final outcome as really final or an end. Too often American managers want the project approach with a fixed start and a deadline end, a launch meeting and a final presentation, then it’s time for a new assighnment. No doubt your email represents a situation in which somebody reads an article that makes “lean” look like a trendy new thing they should be doing so it can be referenced in the annual report or a CEO’s speech. I often find people saying “when we did the lean project two years ago, we … ” and cringe. Yet by looking at their processes you know it was superficial, did not really get to eliminating waste and increasing value-adding or really training and involving staff, and certainly was not continuing, etc.
    I think it’s just another example of our quick fix, look quickly-make a change-and move on to the next big issue approach and the same ole project of the month mentality with a final report et al. But I do agree with the earlier poster that it has a silver lining in that it shows “lean” has arrived and at least some progress is being made, albeit far too little and a poor excuse for really addressing the need which is always continuing, never finished, and a framework in which everything else should follow.


  11. A great example of showing how copying does NOT work, just look at GM. GM had complete access to Toyota and even shared the NUMMI plant with Toyota. They could learn what they wanted and then apply it to their other facilities. The biggest example of GM’s copying failing was the andon system on the lines. GM spent millions of dollars to put in the exact andon system Toyota had installed in NUMMI. Within months nobody was using it at GM. The mindsets were different in how each company feels about stopping a production line and this led to the failure, but this was because GM just tried to copy and paste and not learn and understand why it worked.

  12. […] Is there a role for technology in kanban systems and other Lean supply chain methods? Of course. But, in keeping with Lean and TPS principles, we “Use only reliable, thoroughly-tested technology that serves your people and process.” For example, instead of physically sending an empty kanban bin to a central supply area, we can scan a bar code or use an RFID chip and reader to send a signal when a nurse removes a bin from a rack. We just don’t expect technology to be an easy “silver bullet” solution (as W. Edwards Deming said, there is no instant pudding). […]


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