For part of May this year, our SCLA Executive Think Tank group discussions centered around Lean as a process and organizational methodology. We asked the big question on many people's minds: is Lean still viable?
It's no secret that Lean has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent times. Many observers and organizations believe that Lean has failed—and have even suggested it's the reason there have been so many shortages during the pandemic.
Some organizations are beginning to abandon Lean, mainly because the JIT (just-in-time) aspect of the system did not seem to work well during the time of immense outside pressure that we just endured.
However, it seems that abandoning the system is the wrong approach. Lean can still work—and well. It just depends on the culture of the organization. Dr. Jeff Liker, Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan and a Lean expert and consultant, joined us in early May to provide a more positive perspective on Lean. Dr. Liker has written extensively on The Toyota Way and showed our group how the automaker's culture is at the core of its system and perennial success.
Why Do We Care What Toyota Does?
Toyota is the organization that spawned Lean through its revolutionary Toyota Production System (TPS)—that is often studied by scholars (and copied by other orgs).
My biggest takeaway from Dr. Liker's talk is that you need a culture of problem-solvers throughout an organization, or Lean ultimately will not work effectively. Toyota has created the ultimate culture of problem-solving. But so many other organizations simply do not espouse that same culture today.
A Culture of Problem-Solving
Indeed, TPS—and thus Lean—is a "socio-technical system." And, unfortunately, as the methodology has matured over time, the "socio" aspect has somewhat fallen away. This is because it's difficult to sustain in many cases.
For Lean to work well, you need to ensure that there is "distributed" problem-solving, "so everyone is finding and fixing their own problems and has that capability," says Dr. Liker. "That depends upon a culture of problem solvers—which means you need flexible, capable, and motivated members."
How many workplaces can sustain this? Or, put another way—how many workplaces are able to attract and cultivate those types of employees throughout the organization? It's not easy.
Additionally, it's important to note that this culture even extends to key suppliers in Toyota's system, and it includes long-term investment in people's abilities. Of course, they also have a buffer of temp workers in queue through a placement agency, so they can respond to team losses without missing a beat. It really is a system that reaches beyond the walls of the organization.
Instability is Another Big Challenge to Lean
Lean also works best within a framework of long-term stability. It's true that instability is the enemy of Lean—and we just came out of more than a year of external instability.
So, How Do We Build Lean Back Up?
The answer to this question is certainly NOT to abandon Lean! Rather, there are three big things that need to happen to make Lean work:
1. Investment in our teams and culture
As I mentioned, based on Dr. Liker's presentation, really working hard to create the best possible teams in our organization should be priority one—whether or not we're attempting to make Lean work for us. Investment in our teams and culture is undoubtedly the best way forward. We talked a bit about creating the "industrial athlete"—someone who constantly practices getting better at every aspect of supply chain work. We should all embrace this mentality—from management down.
2. Creating and adhering to "standards"
Because instability kills Lean, ensuring that standards for every single process our organizations undertake are documented and then carried out is critical. Every day. I really like this thought: "You can't be agile without being stable."
3. Building trust
Lastly, a third big factor in making Lean work is building trust with key suppliers/customers—treating them as partners in some cases, just as Toyota does. Relationship-building with suppliers and key customers is essential, even as we look to perhaps bring more suppliers onboard to mitigate risk.
Is Your Organization Still Committed to Lean? I'd Love to Hear Your Experience
If your organization has hit some bumps in the road with Lean, but you're still committed to the process, we would love to have your insight.
Additionally, if your company has tried Lean in the past and decided it wasn't ultimately suitable for your operations, we want to learn more from you! We're planning additional conversations in our SCLA group in the future to continue discussing Lean (in addition to many, many other pertinent topics).
Please feel free to share your perspectives and join the conversation - or reach out to me directly!