Impruver Why the old way sucks
  • August 6, 2020
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I know the title is a little click-batey – but as you read my story, it will make perfect sense.

About 10 years into my career as a Lean and Continuous Improvement practitioner (about 10 years ago), I was working at a manufacturing plant and a new Production Manager joined our team. Of course, this person had no Lean experience and as the Lean Manager, it was my job to orient him to becoming a leader in the transformation. After several weeks of coaching, engaging him in RCA’s and kaizens, and Lean training, he was about ready to give up on it all. His feedback to me was, “this all sounds too nebulous and unattainable – like a religion or something. I just want to do my job. This Lean stuff sucks!” For a while afterward, his behavior and attitude toward Lean and me only grew more adversarial as I continued to challenge him to step up into the role. He never did step up. His boss never expected him to. In fact, I secretly wished that the company had brought in someone who already understood Lean and was ready to serve as a leader in the transformation. I blamed the company; and yes, I blamed him for not conforming.

Flash forward 10 years, a few kids, and a couple of extra pounds later, I realize that he was never the problem. My own arrogance was the problem. It was me who held a vision in my mind that we would be able to copy Toyota’s playbook, tools, methods, and principles and reproduce their results. It was me who believed that if we implemented 5S, SMED, RCAs, Visual Management boards and all the rest, he would see how great all this stuff was and fall in love with Lean like I did. It was me who lacked the humility to see him as someone who could internalize the company’s challenge and find his own way. The product had failed – and I blamed the customer. This goes against everything Lean stands for, but its par for the course.

In conversations with many Lean and CI practitioners over the years, I can see that my story is not unique. We are taught that Lean is what Toyota does to facilitate a scientific approach to management. I later learned that Toyota does not practice “Lean” per se – they’re just doing what they believe is right for the business. It started to dawn on me that I was violating one of the very principles that Lean advocates: the principal of pull. This is the bug in the software that we call Lean. On one hand, we’re supposed to put the customer first and establish pull; on the other hand, we’re supposed to implement this complex system of tools, principles, and methods, which the customer doesn’t really care all that much about. In other words, there is a pull from the customer (and the business overall); but at the same time a push from the Lean Manager – and that poor young Production Manager was caught in the middle. He saw me not as an ally who was there to help him succeed in what he was trying to do, but as a pain in the ass, who was not his customer or manager by the way, that was just making him do extra work.

This is the customer experience for most operations people in companies who embark on the Lean journey. When companies hire Lean and CI Managers, it’s often set up to be a push operation. When the end customer or executives are not pulling for more Lean within the natural chain of command, the result is that the Lean Manager or Consultant is placed in a situation to either push or fail. Both paths ultimately lead to failure.

Impruver - Who is right

What should we do instead?

When you walk into Toyota today, you’ll see all of these amazing management tools that they’ve developed over the years in order to solve their problems, eliminate waste, and increase value to the customer. It’s tempting to grab these tools as we would a product off of the shelf at the supermarket and plug them into our own businesses. We consider this bench marking, which can be a great practice if used effectively. What we’re really doing is trying to take a shortcut – sort of like cheating on the test by copying the answers from the person sitting next to you who looks smart. Then we take these bench marked practices (the answers) back to our own organizations and go into command-and-control mode to enforce compliance, never developing the meta skill of scientific thinking as a means of systematic problem-solving. We’re effectively applying the answers to different questions on a completely different test. As we look deeper, we aren’t really copying what Toyota did. They aren’t doing command-and-control disguised as scientific thinking. What are they doing? How did they end up with these amazing tools? Assuming they weren’t dropped from the sky from some highly evolved alien species who happen to be awesome managers, Toyota must be doing something else. Where did they start?



Kiichiro Toyoda, founder of Toyota, was naturally very creative, innovative, and a good problem-solver. He was a brilliant person, and so were Edward W. Deming, Taiichi Ohno, and many of the other early contributors to what is now known as the Toyota Production System. It was not their original intent to build a production system that should be copied and implemented in other companies. They were simply trying to apply fact-based, scientific thinking throughout the enterprise; they were in humble search of the truth, no matter how inconvenient. If you strip away all the highly evolved tools you now see at Toyota, you are left with the scientific method plus activism for achieving the company’s vision. In other words, hypothesize, experiment, study results (scientific method), plus adjust and try again until the desired outcome is achieved (activism for desired outcome). Said another way, Plan, Do, Check, Act. This is something that young Production Manager would have had no problem understanding. This would not have sucked for him, or anyone else in the company; well except for those who had a problem with the truth, of course. Through the rigorous and systematic application of scientific thinking, that Manager and company at large could have created its own tools, methods, and all the rest, designed specific to its unique set of challenges. This strengthens the adaptability, creativity, and innovation muscle, which is what the company really needed all along. Sort of like learning to do math instead of copying answers. Doing Lean as designed did not strengthen this muscle at all – in fact, it did the opposite; it shut the creativity and innovation engine off and reinforced command-and-control thinking.

The Future of Continuous Improvement

I predict that Lean practitioner as a profession will evolve dramatically in the direction of pure scientific thinking in order to live up to its own values of putting the customer first and pull. At a macro level, this is already happening. Science is simply a method for discovering the truth – and the truth, given time, usually wins. The old way of doing Lean, although borne out of scientific thinking, is not science in itself. No different than the number 10 might be the product of a math equation given the right variables. Science is more of a method, not an end product. In other words, Lean is a product of science and experimentation. Scientific thinking plus creativity will always be in demand as the world’s challenges becoming increasingly complex. The artifacts of Lean such as whiteboards, print forms, and sticky notes are already being replaced by technology that help companies get more value from the information that currently gets lost to time with the old tools. Just like Lean, technology is the product of science. The difference is that because Lean, as practiced, is very rigid and analog, it doesn’t easily or autonomously evolve to increase in effectiveness. It often just fails. On the other hand, technology, has the ability to easily morph into what it needs to be to increase effectiveness. And yes, technology can be developed to teach and increase human capability as well. My 10 year-old daughter just today belted out near-perfect Für Elise after 2 days with her new piano keyboard and an iPhone app. Side note: I spent years trying to learn to play this same song and still not as good as she is after 2 days with the right tech.

To summarize, the young Production Manager would have been better served to simply be taught to think more scientifically instead of having this whole confusing solution called Lean thrust upon him. Companies are now using technology to teach scientific thinking with Artificial Intelligence and IoT to more closely tie specific actions to business outcomes. This technology helps engages enterprise employees to apply this meta skill at scale. Imagine every employee in your company having an AI CI Coach to help drive daily process improvement. This gives organizations the power to create their own tools, methods, and destiny. This is the work being done at Impruver today. The role of the CI practitioner will become more of a creator, strategist, and advanced-level coach than a facilitator of basic processes.

…then get Certified and coach others to do the same!

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