Lean: Methods or Approach?

The Birth of Lean coverI’ve been reading ‘The Birth of Lean’ by Takahiro Fujimoto and Koichi Shimokawa, published by the Lean Enterprise Institute. It’s a collation of interviews with Taiichi Ohno, and some of the other people who played important roles in the development of Lean methods.

In this book, the path to Lean becomes less of the triumphal procession that is sometimes described in textbooks, and more of an incremental process, with stops, starts and cul de sacs. Ohno was influenced by previous thinkers on management and his work, and those of his successors and colleagues, in turn influenced people in other countries.

In a world of books, blogs and courses on Lean, it’s fascinating that Ohno played down formal processes for undertaking Lean. Much of his method for influencing others sounds Socratic, based on repeated questioning of those who worked with him, accompanied by constant pushing to convey a sense of urgency to change. He emphasised the importance of going to see what was happening, rather than relying on second hand accounts. Ohno seems to have very little interest in detailed performance measures, or at least in any measures more detailed than production numbers or profit and loss accounts. In one anecdote in the book, a manager who was mentored by Ohno reports that, when asked for an opinion on a problem, Ohno inquired why he was being asked, when the people asking the question had seen the problem for themselves.

How people looked was also important. He commented that people could look without seeing – having tinfoil over their eyes, as he put it, meaning that their eyes looked as if they were open, but they did not see. In the Lean lexicon, this equates to going to the gemba, the ‘real place’ that work is happening. According to the descriptions, Ohno much prefered to see things in person, rather than to review detailed performance statistics – something for all of us to keep in mind, if we produce several pages of outcomes for a single project.

How does this balance with the formality of some Lean teaching now? Perhaps the issue is that we can’t all be mentored by someone with Ohno’s experience and understanding. In the absence of regular feedback from an expert, it’s natural to fall back on pre-prepared structures, that at least ensure that we don’t forget big issues. On the other hand, Ohno’s words, and those of the people who knew and worked with him, reminded me of the importance of Lean as an approach, rather than a prescribed method. We shouldn’t be afraid to develop new methods and ideas, if they take us closer to the improvement in outcomes that we all seek.

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