Archive for September, 2011

The Perils of “Lean Relativism”

Reflection or hansei in Japanese, is a critical part of lean. Without purposeful reflection it is difficult to improve our value streams, processes or ourselves.

Socrates’ oft referenced, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” rings true within lean. But, may I be so bold to add a twist?

The examined lean life without an objective standard as a reference ain’t lean.

Why would I say such a thing? Let’s borrow a few concepts from moral theology. I know, I know, please bear with me.

Well, without objective standards we risk “lean relativism” under which there are no actions or behaviors which in and of themselves are lean or not. Essentially, it’s a view that lean principles depend on the individuals and groups that hold them.


A lot of folks can convince themselves that things are more than OK, even if they’re not. Nothing to see here, everything’s lean. Keep on moving. No change required.

That’s a recipe for disaster.

There are three schools of thought under the relativist moral methodology. They can apply to lean relativism.

1) Situationism. Here folks maintain that we can’t hold to any rules, or in this situation “lean principles,” that will apply in all circumstance. We just have to look at the concrete situation to really determine whether a given condition or action is consistent with lean or not. An example – due to the fact that the set-up is painfully long (our “situation”), batching is just fine. Wrong! Eliminate or dramatically reduce the set-up and endeavor to get batch sizes down to one or something darn close to one.

2) Consequentialism. This “ism” prescribes that a specific act is neither lean nor non-lean in and of itself, but becomes so on the basis of its consequences. The ends justify the means. One major problem is that when we get into this territory, it can be difficult to understand the consequences of our actions prior to taking them…especially if we’re in short-term thinking mode. Example – the value stream manager delays (for the third time) the deployment of an andon system because he fears the consequences for his overworked supervisors and himself. The anticipated frequency of line stops and the andon response time requirements would just beat his supervisors up. Lean principles would suggest that this is NOT the optimal decision.

3) Utilitarianism. Like situationism and consequentialism, no actions in and of themselves are necessariy lean or non-lean. Here it’s all about the greatest good for the greatest number. Think of it as consequentialism on a more corporate level. Leanness can be wrapped up within whatever maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. Hey, it’s all about respect for the worker, right? Example – the lean answer often includes multi-process operations supporting continuous flow. However, this typically requires cross-trained operators. Well, clearly not everyone is cross-trained, wants to be cross-trained, and/or is capable of being cross-trained. It requires time, effort, change management, and sometimes hard decisions. (Try this in healthcare or transactional-based industry!) You can see where this may be going… OK, we don’t really need multi-process operations OR continuous flow. It’s too painful, for too many. Just build the standard work with the imbalances in work content (% load) and lots of standard WIP and we’ll continue on. Everyone is happy now, right?

Lean principles such as humility, respect for the individual, flow and pull value, assure quality at the source, identify and eliminate waste, create value for the customer, etc. cannot fall victim to lean relativism. That’s not to say that there is no flexibility at the system and tool level, but once one starts making trade-offs with fundamentals, things get out of whack, inconsistent, and confusing.

This is exactly why leadership needs to protect lean purity and defend the organization from the attacks of relativism. Folks need to be trained and actively coached. They must constantly reinforce their thinking and skill sets by seeing, doing, reflecting, and adjusting. And target conditions can’t only prescribe measurable performance levels, but also characteristics relative to things like continuous flow, level-loading, etc.

Without objective standards, we are at risk of never approaching true north. Or if we do, perhaps we approach it purely by accident, which means it will be near impossible to sustain and ultimately further improve.

I leave you with a brief story.

Even after 17 years, I vividly remember the renowned sensei’s three page letter to us. It summarized his initial observations of our operations and his suggested plans to go forward…if we were so committed. To me, it was a first step in a great journey. According to the sensei, there was MUCH opportunity and MUCH to be done. And yet, the lead operations executive wrote something within the margins of the letter, something that seemed utterly unencumbered by reality, “Maybe we are already world class.” Yup, I’m OK, you’re OK…

Related posts: Everyone Is Special, But Lean Principles Are Universal!, WWSD: What Would the Sensei Do?

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10 Common Lean Lies

Some lies you can see a mile away. The check is in the mail. Your table will be ready in a few minutes. I didn’t say that. This won’t hurt a bit…

Add to this rather long list some lies of the lean variety. I’ve heard more than my fair share.

Often, I just shake off the falsehoods and chalk it up hopefully to a case of the utterer not knowing what they don’t know. This means that the “lies” are not truly a conscious effort to deceive. Of course, this would mean that they’re really not lies, but then a post about common ignorant lean statements doesn’t seem quite as snappy.

In any event, effective leadership requires both credibility and competency. The following “lean lies,” and so many others, undermine both characteristics.

  1. This situation is totally abnormal, I’ve never see this before. Translation – dear Mr. or Mrs. Observer, do not believe your eyes…please, oh please.
  2. We will dedicate resources to the kaizen promotion office. The unsaid caveat – yup, 100% dedicated…when they’re not working on other stuff.
  3. We were lean years ago, then we experienced some turnover in key positions…moved from one facility to another (I’m not making this up), etc. What they should readily admit – we may have had a few lean tools in place, but the systems and principles weren’t even an inch deep. We were never truly lean, just fake lean.
  4. I’ll be there for the ENTIRE kaizen event. The invisible exception clause – I’ll be a full-time participant, except when I have a meeting or an important phone call, someone outside of the event seeks my attention, or whenever it is apparent that I’ll have to roll-up my sleeves.
  5. I have a lot of lean experience. The all too frequent reality – I have a number of unread lean books in my bookcase, got abelt” or two, and I’ve participated in several kaizen events…how hard can this be?
  6. We applied the proper rigor. The intended meaning – there is no need to investigate what constitutes our limited effort to understand the current situation. Are direct observation and data necessary for really smart people?
  7. Our employees are our most important asset. Well, first of all, people are NOT assets… although they can/should appreciate in value (while assets typically depreciate). Second of all, you don’t value anyone enough to boldly promise that no one will lose their job as a result of productivity improvements. Rather, you’ll chop heads at the first opportunity and crow how you “leaned-out” the organization.
  8. Senior leadership is committed to lean. The fine print – until we must truly change our own behavior.
  9. We will practice line stop jidoka. Expiration date clause – yes, line stop, until we start missing production time and my standard direct labor dollar metric looks like it will suffer.
  10. Everyone was fully trained in _______. The Clintonesque mental reservation – of course, it depends what your definition of “fully” is.

What are some of the lean “doozies” that you have encountered?

Related posts: Time Observations – without Rigor, It’s Just Industrial Tourism, Show Your Work, Humility, or What Does Dirt Have to Do with Lean?


Another Classic Lean Question – “Do You See What I See?”

I love simple questions. Specifically, I love questions that are ostensibly simple, but can spur deep reflection about important stuff…and ultimately improvement.

As discussed in a prior post, I like the question, “So what?” Those two words seek to identify the “actionability” of things like performance metrics and visual controls. For example, if tier I meeting performance metrics do not provide unambiguous insight to stakeholders on the causality of performance gaps AND the causality can’t be at least partially addressed by the stakeholders, then the metrics probably don’t pass the “So what?” test. In fact the metrics have entered the realm of bad wall art.

So, I’ve got a new question – “Do you see what I see?”

Yes, I know it’s three times longer than, “So what?” But, I think it’s equally as weighty. (Heck, we can abbreviate it as DYSWIS?)

Here’s two ways DYSWIS? can be applied in a lean context.

PDCA of leader standard work. When leader standard work is developed, it is typically done in conjunction with visual controls. The visual controls provide critical assistance to the leader so that he or she can easily discern whether the audit target is normal or abnormal. Well, like in any development mode (think PDCA), we need to check whether each visual control is effective and whether the desired normal condition really makes sense. The best way to check is for multiple people to walk the leader standard work and apply DYSWIS?

An example – three people walk the newly designed leader standard work. They stop at each audit point and, without conversing, do the audit…and then share. The latest stop is at a location of raw pre-staged castings for a machining center where visual controls are supposed to indicate whether the pre-staged material is in the proper location, replenishment has been triggered and its replenishment time (if one has been triggered) has not come and gone without being fulfilled. One of the three thought he could easily tell that things were normal. Another found the visuals to be ambiguous and wasn’t sure. Another thought the “normal condition” of two pallet positions, triggered for replenishment when one was empty, etc. was not sufficient given the waterspider’s cycle time. Do you see what I see? I guess not, we need to make some adjustments.

Gemba walk-based coaching. Gemba walks are a great opportunity for leaders to teach. The walks can be done one-on-one or one-to-many.

An example – an operations director has noted a recent spate of abnormal conditions in an area within a specific value stream. The director takes the young value stream manager for a gemba walk. They pause at a number of targets. The director frequently asks the manager what he sees. Often the manager properly identifies normal and abnormal (and the manager addresses the abnormalities). However, in several areas, in fact the ones that the director was initially concerned about, the manager incorrectly identifies some abnormal conditions as normal. In fact, in a couple situations, it seemed like the manager was guessing (yes, I think that the kanban batch board is maintained properly!?)  At each trouble area, the director shares what he sees and why he sees what he sees…and they reconcile why they don’t share the same insight. Again, DYSWIS?

So, I humbly propose, “Do you see what I see?” as, at the very least, a worthy lean question.

Related posts: Lean Management Systems and Mysterious Performance Metrics, “So What?” – A Powerful Lean Question

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