Kill all “lean” gurus!

In this new year, I think it’s worth pointing out that I’m not a “lean production guru.” I am not a Six Sigma Blackbelt, I have not won the Deming or Shingo prizes, I am not Taiichi Ohno’s favorite caddy, or anything like that.

I’m just a guy who’s excited about lean organization principles, and I’m trying to figure out how to make them work in people’s personal lives as well as they work in a car factory.

Is it a problem that I’m not a big-time lean production guru? That depends. When it comes to expertise, you hear two different things about lean production:

  1. It takes years of experience, either at a classic lean organization like Toyota or in the apprenticeship of a lean master (or both), to truly master the totally different way of thinking that lean production is all about.
  2. Lean production is a process, not a product. Everyone has something to contribute to this process, no matter how little or how much experience they may have with it.

A webinar from the Lean Enterprise Institute that I mentioned once before actually cites both of these views. At one point the speaker describes how it takes ten years to truly master the Toyota Production System (TPS). At another point, the same speaker quotes his TPS mentor saying that “Toyota’s production system is not “THE TOYOTA PRODUCTION SYSTEM.” (That is, the TPS and the lean principles it describes are an ideal to be sought after, not an accurate depiction of how the Toyota company runs in real life. Even Toyota has not truly mastered the Toyota System.)

What are we to make of this? Is it worth the effort to grapple with lean production ideas if you aren’t a master of them? What place should these ideas have in our everyday lives?

Perhaps a good metaphor for TPS and lean production is human DNA: We all have DNA in every cell in our bodies, and these copies of DNA are essentially instruction books for how to make a human being. All you have to do is follow the instructions, and, boom, there’s a person.

But in real life, it’s obviously more complicated than that. Gestating, being born, growing, and maturing are extremely complicated processes, processes that are extremely sensitive to the raw materials they are fed and the external conditions under which they take place. Furthermore, following the instructions encoded in DNA is just the beginning: Figuring out how to continuously grow and adapt to an environment full of rapidly changing resources, hazards, and information is much trickier. DNA only tells you a small part of the story about the person you see in front of you.

Likewise, the lean production principles described in the TPS (and elsewhere) are just the DNA for lean organizations. They are very useful guidelines and contain some profound truths, but they are still just the beginning. Figuring out how to put these ideas to work in your everyday circumstances to continuously achieve higher-quality, more-satisfying, less-wasteful outcomes is a challenge that will always be somewhat different for each person trying to do it.

There’s a famous book on psychotherapy called “If You Meet The Buddha In The Road, Kill Him.” Its point (so I’ve heard) is that the real work of psychological growth has to be done by the individual, not by their therapist. Forgetting that, and depending on gurus to do the work that only you can do to make your life better, leads to trouble. (No, you aren’t supposed to actually kill the gurus, just keep their value to you in perspective.)

So yes, pay attention to what the lean gurus out there have to say if it’s useful to you (including, if you want, my own struggles with these ideas). But remember that the real work of creating leaner processes in your everyday life is yours and yours alone.

As the lean gurus tell us (oops), only the guys turning the bolts in the factory can tell us how to turn them better.


About adbenking

A journeyman sociologist living in Chicagoland.
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One Response to Kill all “lean” gurus!

  1. Pingback: Debunking the history of lean. | Everyday Lean

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