Although most people know that Lean is a generic term for the Toyota Production System, few people understand how much has been lost in translation. Japan study tours are common these days, and although Toyota allow visits to their sites, only the surface layer can be seen. To the untrained eye, it would be difficult to see tangible differences to a Nissan or Honda factory. In my experience, many people believe Japanese manufacturing is Lean – hence the japan study tours. I believe this to be a symptom of the loss in translation of lean, and the ongoing general focus on the “lean tools” rather than the “lean mind set”.

Are all Lean systems equal, or are some more equal than others?

I recently heard a comment from a governing body that in effect, the Nissan Production System and the Toyota Production system are “the same thing”.

Really?   Let’s not forget, in recent history, Nissan reportedly came very close to bankruptcy, and sold a significant shareholding to the Renault organisation. On the other hand, Toyota has been one of the few financially stable car manufacturers throughout its history.

I’ve conducted a couple of study tours myself recently to take a look at the different “takes” on Lean that have evolved.  One thing stood out very clearly – they generally fall into 1 of 2 generic groups:

  • Lean Tools Orientation

If I’m going to hear the saying “we’ve done lean”, then it will be an organisation in this group.  Yes, the key tools have been implemented at some point with varying degrees of uptake by the process operators.  Some tools, such as “stand-up” meeting boards are often coated with dust, displaying a distant historic date and old information that serves as a reminder of the failure of their Lean Programme.  Even a half trained eye can see masses of waste around the processes and massive opportunities for improvement. However, advice is not wanted in some of these organisations, “don’t talk to me about that Lean stuff and car manufacturing approach” has been blurted out to me on several occasions.

  • Lean Principles Orientation

These organisations seem to get it.  They’re sometimes the organisations that have been less hasty to jump in and “do that lean thing”.  They have taken the time to think about things and are confident that the Lean principles stand up well to logic and reason.  Some of them don’t have the flashiest 5S boards and andon systems yet, but they are doing the basics really well.

So in answer to my own question, it is clear that all Lean systems are not equal.  Some, in fact, are just poorly introduced tools.

So, what needs to be done?

This depends upon the organisation’s maturity level.  For those that are still in a tools frame of mind, I would advise reading up on the lean principles and challenging them at a senior leadership team level.  Do they stand up to reason?  Wouldn’t these principles enhance your organisation even though you don’t make cars?

For those that answer yes, then consider the following steps:

  • Start with “why”. Be very clear to the whole organisation why it needs to take a different approach and embrace the lean principles.
  • Empower the organisation to deliver. Not adhoc training courses or sheep dip training, but strategic people development.
  • Lead people to do the basics well every day. Relentlessly reinforce the lean principles and then hold people accountable for results delivery.

Remember, if lean fails it’s because it’s been “done” wrong.



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