How Not to Fail in Lean

Dr. Jeffrey Liker of the University of Michigan, author of The Toyota Way, The Toyota Way Fieldbook, Toyota Talent and Toyota Culture, knows quite a bit about Lean and its successful implementation. He views Lean success in this insightful way-

"There are tools, but they are not tools for 'improving the process.' They are tools for making problems visible and for helping people think about how to solve those problems."

"Whether it is a kanban or standardized work or 5S, these are tools to set a standard and make the deviation from the standard visible to the work group. Then the work group must develop problem-solving skills to identify the root cause and solve the real problem."

"If leaders do not understand how to use the tools to unleash the creativity and motivation of people, they are not leaders-they are just administering a bureaucratic process."

"Any solution is an experiment that is 'right half the time.' If the tools do not change the way people who do the work think about their own processes, the tools are a failure."

"People who do the work have to improve the work."

From my own conversations with Dr. Liker, I have learned that Lean success is sustained only when leaders and managers develop the environment, structures and aligned incentives to foster an educated and trained workforce that is empowered to work horizontally across the path of workflow. This is the key to obtaining the hundreds of small, granular process improvements done at the level of the work they own, informed by metrics of work variation, in concert with their leader, using the scientific method, e.g., data-driven PDCA.

This is work rule #4 of the Toyota Production System, described by Dr. Steven Spear of Harvard University, that is too often abbreviated merely to the letters 'PDCA'.

The above are the aspects of Lean management that must be well thought out by leaders before beginning to arm employees with tools that by themselves have little to do with sustaining meaningful change but may rather instill false starts, frustration or failure.