Myth 1: Lean is primarily about doing more with less, which means reducing cost. It’s an efficiency programme.
Lean is about engaging people, developing people to do great things and that could be anything, it could be quality of service, safety or morale. If you limit yourself to efficiency then you’re not going to get the full benefits of lean.
I was originally trained as an industrial engineer and industrial engineering often is an efficiency programme. The assumption of industrial engineering is that the industrial engineer is the technical expert who comes into the operation and makes it more efficient. Usually it’s easier to understand cost when the focus is on eliminating jobs. Lean is different than that. What Toyota built is something that’s built out of industrial engineering, some say it turns industrial engineering on its head, because now the experts are the workers and the supervisors that know the process and the teacher is the engineer who is helping and supporting the people doing the work, not just to achieve the efficiency goals but also to achieve quality and reduce cost and any wasted processes as well as feel good about themselves so that the morale goes up. It’s a very holistic approach that depends on the people doing the work, helping to identify problems and solve those problems.
Myth 2: Lean describes the specific tools and methods that Toyota uses, so we should copy them.
If you ever go to the Toyota plant what you’d see would be tools and methods, parts moving different ways through something called Kanban, you’ll see pulling of the cord followed by the light coming on, which is called Andon, but that’s not really the essence. The important thing with the Andon is that it calls attention to problems so that people can continuously improve and solve the problems. If you’ve just got the tools you’re not really getting the full benefit.
Most companies that are serious about Lean have discovered that what really matters is the culture you create, a culture that engages people, with leaders going to the gemba, seeing the actual situation, understanding the goals of the company and bringing the company to operational excellence.
Myth 3: It requires an incredible amount of discipline that Westerners simply don’t have.
There is a lot of discipline required in different ways with lean, one is that the process of improving towards a goal really requires a step-by-step process of understanding the purpose, understanding the current condition and then systematically trying things, experimenting, learning and moving towards a goal. Once you set up a lean system, a lot of work is more regimented, standardised. It’s then more about sticking to the standard work and pulling the Andon whenever you have a problem, solving the problem immediately. All those things require a lot of discipline.
In Japan, it seems like discipline is in the water. It comes quite naturally for Japanese people to follow the rules, such as safety rules. I don’t think we’ve developed a lot of that discipline in the West, but it can be learned through practice. Japanese leaders in Toyota have done an excellent job of bringing the Toyota Production System all over the world to all sorts of cultures and effectively teaching the discipline.
One of the things that I talk about at my Masterclass is Toyota Kata developed by one of my former students Mike Rother and what he noticed is that, in order to get the discipline required to solve problems and improve towards a goal you need to start to change your habits. In order to get to the point where we systematically study the process, understand it, experiment and learn we have to develop new habits and ways of thinking. The Kata is something you exercise and practice so you can begin to change your neural pathways and develop this more disciplined way of thinking. It requires daily practice and focus on following the improvement kata steps.
Myth 4: Lean prevents problems from happening.
There is a myth that lean is something you do to an organization or process so that it’s eventually leaned out and there should no longer be any problems occurring. In reality, you use the lean tools such as Andon, to call the attention to the problems. I’ve heard one manager say: “Before we had this Andon, we didn’t have any problems. Now suddenly we have a bunch of problems.” They’ve always had the problems, but they were just ignoring them.
Myth 5: Lean works best in manufacturing environments.
Most people hear about lean coming from Toyota and the Toyota Production System and Toyota is open about showing their plants, which a lot of people got to see by now. That becomes an image of lean. But people all over the world have applied lean methods to any type of process you can imagine, such as government or healthcare. They’ve found that in any case there is a process and a customer who has the requirements you need to deeply understand and you need to create a consistent and reliable process to create a consistent value to the customer. The general principles therefore apply to all industries. The specific solutions that you see in the Toyota plant are theirs and should not be copied.
If you knew nothing about Lean, you might read some books, attend courses. If you wanted to invest, hiring someone as a coach could accelerate your learning very quickly, getting a hands-on experience so that you can learn. If they’re just making changes for you, they’re not a good consultant. Internally, you could also experiment and try things on your own. I’ve received notes from those who’ve read my book that they’ve made a huge difference just by reading my book and thinking about it and improving how they worked. A good start can also be reading Glen Uminger’s recent post on applying Lean in non-manufacturing environments.