Lean is typically attributed to the Toyota Production System (TPS) – a name that encompasses the organizational mindset that helped drive Toyota to success in the global auto market. The term Lean is even used as a stand in for TPS. But if we want to learn more about why some Lean efforts succeed while others fail, we need to acknowledge the fact that TPS evolved under totally different conditions and in a different mindset than the Lean we know today.
Whether or not Lean “fails” in today’s organizational climate has much to do with what has been lost in the process of translating the principles of TPS to what we know as “Lean”.
TPS and Lean are related, but distinct. The TPS story is one of emergence. In search of efficiency, the leaders of Toyota experimented with ways to engage their employees to solve problems (by bringing them to the surface), continuously reduce waste, and serve more value to the customer. The Lean story is largely a story about application. Lean, as a package, has been imposed as a set of tools and way of thinking that together, are expected to change the way people do their work.
This distinction is key: TPS emerged as a problem-solving paradigm; the Lean model emerged as a solutions-oriented approach.
TPS, a system focused on improving efficiency through minimizing waste and bringing problems to the surface, grew out of observations from the mass production systems in the early 20th century in the United States. Taiichi Ohno, a Japanese engineer and businessman credited with founding the Toyota Production System, was fascinated by the workings of mass production, but saw that it was fraught with waste (time, materials, inventory, etc.) and therefore was failing to provide value to the customer. During this time period, right after WWII, the Japanese economy was strained, which meant that Ohno and his colleagues had to find ways to satisfy their customers using limited resources. Toyota saw the mass production system through the lens of the “value-stream” and identified ways to reduce waste that ultimately allowed them more flexibility in creating product that customers were requesting.
“Lean” is an American construct that that came from the TPS mindset through observations by American researchers. Dr. James Womack joined a group of researchers at MIT in the late 1970s as they tried to better understand how the Japanese automotive manufacturing industry was smoking the United States. In 1984, these researchers published their research findings in a book called The Future of the Automobile.
The ideas they gleaned from Toyota subsequently came about as the concept of Lean, introduced through the book The Machine that Changed the World (1991), by James Womack, Daniel Jones, and Daniel Roos. Womack, Jones, and Roos laid out the concept of Lean through principles inspired by TPS: customer value, identifying the value-stream, creating flow, moving from push to pull, and continuously iterating in order to achieve highest efficiency. Dr. Womack eventually founded the Lean Enterprise Institute in 1997. And now, more often than not, those principles are unfortunately applied in a way that misses the key environmental factors that led to their creation in the first place.
All too often, Lean is treated as a fad program, instead of a mindset for solving production problems.
Let’s look specifically at a few of the key differences between the Toyota Production System and Lean that are a result of how these two programs came into being. These differences help us understand why Lean will “fail” in many of its current applications.
Problem solving versus solutions thinking
For Toyota, it was not about prescribing “what to do,” but about “how” to solve problems quickly and effectively (not just “efficiently”) in order to provide the best value to the customer. Yet Lean is often sold to a company as a solution (typically a set of tools) to problems that have not been clearly identified. As a solution, Lean tools are applied, but the work of the value-stream is not examined, which can generate overlapping activity, missing the intention to align processes, people, and tools to deliver greater value to the customer. When Lean is deployed as a solution, it often sets actions into motion to make change, many of which are not aligned with the goal of actually improving delivery for the customer.
Bringing problems to the surface
Organizations that use Lean are often still operating under a culture of “sweeping problems under the rug.” Toyota’s production system and culture were both designed to highlight mistakes so that people could fix them. The idea was that, through use of the Andon cord, team members could bring problems to the surface as a way of best serving value to the customer. In an organization where it’s normal to sweep problems under the rug, Lean makes no sense. Imposing Lean on this type of organizational culture will likely lead to an impasse or to the Lean effort being completely abandoned.
Serving value to the customer
At Toyota, leaders not only paid attention to the process of removing waste, but did so in order to serve the purpose of providing more value to the external customer. Lean, on the other hand, is often touted as a solution to removing waste for the sake of removing waste and improving “efficiency.” This is a question of ends versus means, or results versus process. When leaders are focused on the shared goal of serving value to the customer, this naturally results in engaged employees who want to solve problems in alignment serving value to the customer. Lean is often too focused on how to use a tool, without a clear definition of a shared goal of serving value to the customer… the why.
Why does all of this matter? When companies struggle with Lean and abandon their change efforts, it’s usually because leaders hoped that Lean would be “the solution” to their problems. When Lean change efforts fail, it’s a result of this expectation, not Lean itself. Lean—or TPS, or you might say, learning from Toyota—was never a solution to be imposed. It’s simply a way of solving problems at work to create more value for customers (and ultimately, to improve society).
Lean may "fail" sometimes, but a true believer in the method will recognize that even this is an opportunity to improve and experiment. Thinking of Lean as a way to engage all employees in solving problems that continuously improves the delivery of value to the customer (rather than a neatly organized package of solutions or tools) has the power to shift our approach to leadership entirely.
This is the strength of the TPS approach that can make Lean journeys meaningful and successful.