Lean For Thought


Mark's Note: I'm just getting back from vacation, so we're wrapping up the guest posts. Today's post is by Christina Kach and you can read her previous guest posts here. Check out her updated bio at the bottom of the post. I'm sure there will be a lot of good discussion on this post, so please add your thoughts…

kachI may never have been interested in Debate Club, but I appreciate a respectful and thoughtful discussion on topics whether it's with likeminded people or people with different viewpoints who add a fresh perspective. There have been some thoughts on my mind lately from the world of Lean that I think could lead to some of that thoughtful discussion. Here's what I'm thinking. And I don't believe there are any right or wrong answers.

As Lean Practitioners, we can often be quick to criticize companies or departments with weak or misguided Lean programs. I offer this question: is it better to at least be trying to do Continuous Improvement work, or not bother unless it is planned out correctly?

We talk a big game about Gemba – but then pull everyone into a classroom to give them Lean education training. And training seems to be the least “continuous” thing in Continuous Improvement. We send people once and expect them to not just understand it but go back and apply.

Following on with the Gemba topic. I feel like “Going to Gemba” or “Gemba walks” isn't quite enough. Going to observe and see is clearly fine. But we have to DO something as a result of these walks. Far too often we think going for a Gemba walk is enough, a check in the box that they did their duty. Is that mere presence enough; at least they are trying? But if it isn't driving action to make things better, is it value added?

And back to training, how are we expecting our people (at all levels!) to be able to make cognizant choices for change without the proper knowledge of how to do it or what they should be looking for and how to get there. It'd be like asking someone to build you a coffee table, without any tools or blue prints.

We champion the small Kaizen type improvements. We know their benefit and worth to an organization, not to mention the impact to employee engagement. Yet, these smaller improvements get “acknowledged” in all hands meetings while the projects getting the fancy awards and nice off site dinners are the substantial big impact projects. Is this appropriate? Are we sending the right message, the reward match the accomplishment? Or, are we sending the wrong message that only big projects are important?

I've heard both sides of the terminology argument. We use these terms, “Lean” or “Work Place Organization(WPO)” to give structure to our Lean implementations. Or, conversely, maybe specific labels don't matter and that isn't what our focus should be. Focus is on the improvement work itself, not the label that's used. The old “what's in a name” argument a la Shakespeare… call it whatever you will, the concept is still the same.

A cornerstone of the Toyota Way and Continuous Improvement, standard work, explains how important it is for a clear outline of the desired work conditions and a way of making abnormalities obvious. We have standard checklists and process sheets. Yet, has anyone noticed, standard work changes from area to area or department to department? Standard work within one building may be edited multiple times over to fit “our” need. And isn't that the same for Lean as a whole? Every company does the Lean “their” way. Even if it is as simple as just changing words (like Visualize instead of Define for example). Isn't that breaking our own notion of standard work? We explain the importance in one way of, well if you switch departments, you will still understand how to operate. So, if I switch companies with their own Lean set up, that is okay? Should all companies be operating to the given set of Lean principles without the opportunity to tailor? That may be true, but should Lean within a company at least be standardized regardless of department?

Just some Lean For Thought…. Let me know what you think.

Christina invites you to connect with her via Twitter (@ChristinaKach) or at her blog for young professionals www.catchcareers.com

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Christina Kach is a Senior Business Analyst on the Continuous Improvement team for a financial services company in Boston, Ma. Christina held her first Lean position as in intern in 2006. Since then she has continued to seek out varied roles of increasing responsibility and actively pursues further Lean education. She recently held the role of Continuous Improvement Lead for a Government Defense Company based in Massachusetts, focusing on Lean implementation and process improvement in a manufacturing environment.


  1. “Isn’t that breaking our own notion of standard work?”

    Standardization, or standardized work (SW), is a means, not an ends. Standardization isn’t the goal in and of itself.

    Should SW be the same in different departments? Sure, if there are benefits to it being the same. The benefit could be consistent product or service quality… the benefit could be making it less confusing for people to rotate or work in different areas or departments. Standardized doesn’t have to be identical.

    There are benefits from having standardized Lean terminology across different companies. That allows us to compare notes, to learn from each other, and switch jobs without having to completely re-learn a proprietary improvement system from scratch.

    That said, I think companies should make Lean or any improvement program “their own.” I often advise hospitals to not use the term “Lean” as the primary branding of their improvement program or their management system. You can call it the “Hospital X Improvement System” etc. and that creates a sense of ownership and things can be customized (such as including Six Sigma methods or other ideas). But, I wouldn’t want to see a company completely change the 5S terms (or make it 8S or 11S) because then that just confuses people from the outside or people who are new and bring other Lean experience with them.

    In all things balance… too much standardization can sometimes be limiting or disengaging… but too little standardization can often cause a lot of problems.

    How standardized should things be? Not too little and not too much.

  2. Many great points also, Christina… yes, training should be more continuous and more “learn by doing” action oriented. I think that’s how we really learn… cycles of learn, do, learn, do, reflect, etc.

    Following on with the Gemba topic. I feel like “Going to Gemba” or “Gemba walks” isn’t quite enough.

    Yes, in a similar vein “visual management” is more than “having visuals” in place. Having visual indicators of process problems or bad performance mean nothing if managers and staff aren’t working together to react and improve.

  3. Somehow along the way, visual management got diluted into – we have a sign/whiteboard, we are doing visual management. And it is so much more than that. I find VM to consistantely be one of the most over looked & under appreciated skills in a Lean toolkit.

  4. Good points Christina. I believe there is a difference between “commonization” and “standardization”. As you mentioned, we want to standardize the work pattern so that abnormalities can be observed, but not all standard work patterns need to be “commonized” between departments or locations. I agree with your point that there will be a different “fit” depending on the needs of the company or group.

  5. To your first question.

    Yes, misguided Lean efforts can cause more damage than good. Misguided Lean can cause cynisism and a dilution of other important work that spoils the environment for Lean done right.

  6. I agree with frustration that so often companies throw up white boards or signs that they feel are sufficient visual indicators or controls.

    No no no. There should always be a reason for everything we do or have, and visual controls and indicators provide value by inspiring action. If you’re running out of a product in a supermarket, you can quickly tell by a color coded system or kanban cards, and you then know to replenish. Andon lights indicate problems and operators/managers can react right away. Visual indicators and provide direction – do it this way, not that way.

    The same can be said about standardized work, and Mark nails it with SW being the means and not the end. The goal is optimal output, be it highest quality or fastest delivery. Standardized work reflects the best-known practice of hitting that goal and may or may not be different in different work cells or scenarios as long as the outputs of both cells or scenarios is the best possible.

    Excellent points in your post, Christina. Nice work!

  7. Straightforward, Christina! You lay several probing questions out on the table. I will respond to the vital few I think I can add value to.

    “is it better to at least be trying to do Continuous Improvement work, or not bother unless it is planned out correctly?”

    In my humble opinion, this is not a matter of black and white. Naturally, trying to do Continuous Improvement is a marvelous initiative. However, practitioners (and especially leaders) should be wary that there is an underlying philosophy that is critical to sustainable success. In my experience, the following scenario is viable.

    When senior management is not engaged yet, and middle management shows exemplary results by applying Toyota’s principles, Sr. management may adopt it. But instead of recognizing the perceived veiled ‘lean thinking’, they baptize aforementioned principles as a ‘project’ – or worse, as a ‘tool’ to reduce costs. For instance, they may reduce costs by reducing headcount. I believe I do not have to explain the catastrophic effect of this approach. What do you think?

    Hence, I would argue that starting out with Continuous Improvement activities is a slippery slope.

    “We send people once and expect them to not just understand it but go back and apply.”

    Obviously this is not the right way to go. Possibly, when we are walking this path we assume that we can achieve quick results? I honestly believe classroom training is inferior to hands-on training – and organizations should emphasize their training programs – be it JI or JM to speak in TWI terms, on Gemba Learning (I also believe training is not the right word either).

    Referring to my former argument, this not-so-sensible approach may be a product of a wrongfully initiated Continuous Improvement initiative.

    “Following on with the Gemba topic. I feel like “Going to Gemba” or “Gemba walks” isn’t quite enough.”

    Precisely so Christina! The ‘Go see’ aspect is the first step of ‘Going to Gemba’, and oftentimes the second and third step are forgotten in our Western world. ‘Asking Why’ and ‘Showing respect’ are respectively the second and third step. I would like to know why, wouldn’t you?

    • It certainly isn’t black & white…but I do believe in “You’re doing it wrong” Lean situations, for exampling, focusing on the tools and not the mindsets & behaviors.

      • Lean done wrong in my organization hasn’t been a focus on tools but a belief by management that Lean is a way to better fix those below. This is particularly insidious because senior managers (notice I didn’t use the term leaders) get to go about their routines without recognizing their personal need to change.

  8. Very stimulating commentary Christina. I can relate to most of your points….Lean training in the classroom, poor Gemba Walks, and inconsistent standard work among departments. I find myself trying to get senior management to address these issues but it is very difficult. I feel your pain.

  9. Excellent points, Christina.

    re. training “Training seems to be the least “continuous” thing in Continuous Improvement. We send people once and expect them to not just understand it but go back and apply.” => IMO, can be remedied if coaching and expert support are consistently provided, the “Toyota Way”. But that is time consuming to build and hard to instill (managers acting as coaches rather than controllers). As always, boiling down to a matter of culture and leadership.

    and I particularly like your “Standard Work and Lean should be adapted to ‘our’ need” analogy.

    Keep up the good work.

  10. Christina, thank you for the stimulating post. Seems to me the essence of a vibrant continuous improvement culture is a self-evident truth: we know it when we experience it. Behind it there is a person in authority that has BELIEF. This fuels everything else. Anything else is either a hobby or a half pregnancy. To your very soulful question “is it better to at least be trying…” I believe the answer is a resounding YES. There are life-changing moments through the coaching experience (both ways) that make it all worth it. Just some thoughts.


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