Wanna Sabotage Your Lean Implementation Effort? Try This

Wanna Sabotage Your Lean Implementation Effort? Try This

Failure to create stable process flow is a basic failing of the simplest form.

I did a webinar for IndustryWeek late in 2012 titled “How To Implement Lean Manufacturing -- And Virtually Guarantee Failure.” Many who watched my webinar were surprised when I stated that the most common cause of failure has more to do with the existing weaknesses businesses have in their own management systems rather than issues brought about by implementing the new items that represent the difference between their existing system and elements of a lean manufacturing system.

Many lean implementations have failed and many are failing, if not in whole at least in part -- I state that axiomatically. So if yours is a complete failure, a partial failure or if you are just struggling as you go, I will discuss what I have found to be the most common reason for those struggles. In fact, with my client base and survey data I have gathered from other lean professionals, I find that a full 95% of all implementations suffer greatly from this malady!

What is this weakness?

The secret is this: Most facilities that fail in a lean implementation have failed to create stable process flow. And by stable I mean statistically stable -- a process that is predictable. In simple terms, Dr. W. Edward Deming would have said that you analyze the process and first make it free of assignable causes.

Why is this problem so prevalent?

I find that many companies that wish to implement a lean initiative lack the experience and knowledge necessary. Consequently, they go to the literature to find ways to implement lean in their facility. In my opinion, the real expert writings on the Toyota Production System (TPS) have come from Taiichi Ohno. Second -- but a distant second -- is Shigeo Shingo. So when someone says the TPS is “this or that,” I refer to their writings to sort the wheat from the chaff. Why these two?

  • First and foremost, they were involved in creating the TPS. They created it organically, building system upon system -- based on need. In fact, Ohno specifically said, “The Toyota production system, with its two pillars advocating the absolute elimination of waste, was born in Japan out of necessity. Today, in an era of slow economic growth worldwide, this production system represents a concept in management that will work for any type of business.” (Taiichi Ohno. “Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production”)
  • Second, they were there -- on the floor; experimenting, trying, succeeding, failing and trying again. They gained their knowledge by experimentation combined with deep thought and reflection around clear objectives. The TPS is functionally impossible to learn simply by reading about it and studying it. A mantra of mine is that you learn by doing. Vicarious learning is simply not adequate.
  • Third, Ohno in particular recognized that although it was the Toyota Production System, it was also a management system. Note his comment “this production system represents a concept in management that will work for any type of business.”
  • Fourth, they succeeded.

Ohno on Flow

In Chapter 1 of his book, Ohno has a section titled “Establishing a Production Flow.” In Chapter 2, he punctuates this theme with another section dedicated to flow and boldly declares: “Establishing the Flow Is the Basic Condition.”

Flow is not some “oh by the way” thing. Ohno said flow is the basis of -- the foundational condition for -- the TPS. He was very clear.

I teach my clients the basic condition is “stable flow at takt.” Ohno and I are saying exactly the same thing. Ohno created and had in place an excellent quality system with stable flow at takt as a precursor -- and then built his quantity control system on top of that.

Today most managers either miss -- or simply ignore -- this reality and try to build a quantity control system on a weak foundation. They try to implement the so-called lean tools, such as heijunka, kanban and SMED, without first attaining stable flow at takt.

This approach is doomed to fail.

Why is this point so often missed? I am sure there are myriad reasons but to me the most obvious one is that most people who try to implement a lean manufacturing system never really created one, as Ohno did.

Rather, they try to get their knowledge of the elements and the implementation techniques from the literature and from consultants. Unfortunately, most of these consultants got their information from the literature as well, with a dabbling of implementation successes. And super-unfortunately, most of the information in the literature is written by academics who have learned the TPS by studying the TPS rather than living the TPS. To me, it is a little like taking advice about learning golf from people who have studied golf techniques and observed the experts; rather than from folks who have studied, observed and actually been on the course.

Learn TPS by Doing TPS

I tell all my clients that you learn the TPS by doing the TPS. All other efforts such as reading, studying and observing may be necessary, but they are not sufficient.

Let me give you one example. Jim Womack is a hero of mine. He has done more to advance lean thinking in the U.S. than anyone I can point to. However, I have always had concerns with some portions of Womack’s writings. Specifically he has never really spoken about the critical importance of process stability, and he is very soft on machinery issues of availability as well. These are two topics of major importance in many, many plants as they embark on a lean initiative -- yet Womack is virtually silent here.

When his last book, “Gemba Walks,” came out, I rushed to buy it and rushed to read it. In his chapter on Hansei, critical reflection, I was amazed, surprised and very pleased to read that he wrote:

“For 20 years I have had a T-shirt on the wall above my desk in my writer’s nook. On the front is a line drawing of Taichi Ohno starting down at me with the admonition, ‘Where there is no standard, there can be no kaizen.’ Yet somehow I kept thinking smooth flow and steady pull could be created first, with basic stability as an afterthought—or that maybe it would just emerge automatically. In retrospect, it’s like believing that a building can be built without first laying the foundation. I now see my error. I only wish I had realized this sooner.”

He wishes he’d realized it sooner. So do I.

This oversight, the failure to establish stable flow at takt as a basic condition, has contributed to many, many lean failures. Without stable flow, without predictable flow, without a process free of assignable causes, there simply is too much variation to make a lean conversion successful. Without stable flow, the lean implementation is doomed. With stable flow, it has a chance of success.

I do not attribute this flaw in our system of lean thinking and lean awareness to Womack or any other writer -- or any other academic -- for that matter. I attribute this weakness to the vast majority of lean practitioners and managers who are trying to implement a lean initiative and do not seriously question and analyze their own situations. Instead, they want to blindly and lazily copy the thoughts of someone else as though someone else has not only most of the answers, but all of the answers.

No Bypassing the Responsibility of Learning

They do not want to learn by doing. They want to learn by reading. They want to learn by copying. It is a form or intellectual laziness and a shortcut bound for failure. Quite frankly, unlike Womack and others, they want to bypass the responsibility of learning. There is no such luxury available.

They do not have the wisdom and the courage to venture into the unknown as Ohno did. They ignore how Ohno created his system.

Which was: Find a basic need, design a countermeasure, then you -- not a bunch of hired guns -- you implement it. Find its strengths. Find its soft spots. Build on its strengths. Learn from its failures. Read, study, analyze and reflect on the weaknesses. Modify it. Make it work. Refine it further. Understand why it worked. Understand why it did not work. Understand how you can use it elsewhere. Understand when and where you can do it again. Understand where it should not be used. Analyze it further; study it. Show others how it succeeded. Show others how it failed. Chart your progress. Then find the next need and repeat this arduous learning cycle once again. Learn your way to competency. It is not just PDCA, it is PDCA with you in the middle. 

By living it, you will learn and make progress, as Ohno and Shingo did. And as you learn about your facility, you will -- as Ohno did -- learn that stable flow at takt is the basic operating condition that must be achieved if you wish to implement a successful lean initiative.

Also Read: Outward Signs of Unstable Process Flow

Lonnie Wilson has been teaching and implementing lean and other culture-changing techniques for more than 40 years. His book, “How To Implement Lean Manufacturing” was released in August 2009. His new book on “How to Lead and Manage a Lean Facility” is under construction. Wilson is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. In addition to IndustryWeek, he has published articles in Quality Digest and is a frequent contributor to iSixSigma magazine. His manufacturing experience spans 20 years with Chevron, where he held a number of management positions. In 1990 he founded Quality Consultants, www.qc-ep.com, which teaches and applies lean and other culture-changing techniques to small entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 firms, principally in the United States, Mexico and Canada. In particular, he specializes in “lean revitalizations,” assisting firms that have failed or failing lean implementations and want to”do it right.”

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