We learn from Jim Womack, Mike Rother, and John Shook on the origins of Value Stream Mapping. They answer the question “What is value stream mapping?”, but also reflect on their many years of seeing organizations use it in their businesses. We learn about their book Learning to See and their reflections on the state of Lean since the publishing of Learning to See. They even discuss the symbols of value stream mapping, their regrets, and also the role of value stream mapping in the implementation of Lean Management.
Interviewer: John wrote a book also, co-authored with Mike Rother, that changed the language I think in business too, and that was, “Value Stream Mapping.” Here again as there were problems with “lean production,” perhaps people mistranslating it, you had misgivings about “value stream mapping” in the beginning too.
Interviewee: Well, I had misgivings about introducing another tool to the world at that time. That was 15 years ago, not 25 years ago, when the word “lean” was first introduced, 15 years ago. At that time, as we looked at the fact that there wasn’t a lot of progress in achieving lean results, I thought, “Well, is the problem that we don’t have enough tools?” I thought, “No, the problem is a management problem, ” even at that time. I had some misgivings about it. Again, I think those misgivings were misplaced. I think what we did was the right thing.
Speaking of language, actually what convinced me to do that book, and I think it was Dan actually who came up with the title of the book which was, “Learning to See,” My first reaction to that title was, “Over my dead body.” That just sounds too bizarre. Learning to see, see what? This is going to be, if we’re going to do this it should be the “Value Stream Mapping Handbook” or something like that.
As I thought about it, I slept on it, and realized that Dan was exactly right. That what this was about was learning to see, learning to see in a different way, so, it’s that title that actually convinced me that doing the book was a good idea. As with all of these things, over time there are good and bad that comes with it. I think that on balance, it’s been a very good thing that we introduced Value Stream Mapping. I think it’s been a plus when you look at the impact that it’s had.
The term “lean thinking” and what it’s meant in different languages. I was actually, in 1988 when the article first came out, I was in Japan, in Toyota City, I worked in Ford Toyota. We didn’t know about the article, but we didn’t really know about the term “lean production” until the book came out a couple of years later, “A Machine that Changed the World.” I can tell you it had a profound impact in Toyota City. It was gratifying.
When we first found the book, “A Machine that Changed the World,” and recognized that someone had been looking at what Toyota, I can see “we” at that time, what we had been doing for the last 50 years, it was very gratifying to know someone had been watching and someone understood. The fact that someone put a label on it made perfect sense, that’s fine. They shouldn’t use the Toyota Production System, that’s the production system we have, everyone should make their own.
The intent, I think, that Jim and Dan and John Krafcik had of coming up with a word, a term, was the right intention, that people could see that and think, “How can we extrapolate these ideals into something that works for us?”
I think mainly, we were in Toyota City, quite happy with it. Also, in Toyota City, folks like to nitpick, and so there was a team that was set about to read the book and on every page, every place that we thought there was a mistake, to make a note. There’s still a file that exists in a filing cabinet in Toyota City that contains all these errors that were in the book. Overall, I think the sense was that it had captured the correct message in the right way in the big sense of the word.
After that, I was sometimes frustrated with the word “lean” over the years because it doesn’t capture holistically what it all is, but I have, as an exercise, given groups an assignment to think of a new word. If you were to rename “lean” today, what would it be? Understanding now that it’s a holistic system, and it’s more about creating value then just taking away, what word would you use? I’ve done that many, many times and heard probably hundreds of answers come about.
None of them are really quite right. It is, kind of, hard to capture this in one word. If I were to go back to 1988 in that room where John and Jim and Dan and others were debating and deciding, I probably would advocate a different word. Now it does have a legacy a history, it has a heritage, as Dan said. Now when we say anywhere in the world, “We’re talking about lean,” people know what it means.
Interviewer: You know immediately.
Interviewee: And as soon as you start to water it down with operational excellence, or something like that, it becomes very watered down, and we’re no longer sure what we’re talking about. I think it’s worked well enough.
Interviewer: Sticking with that, there was some controversy, there was a suggestion and you mentioned this in one of the new essays in the edition of, “Walks” about Fragile production and we’re at the AME conference in Toronto, and I’ve heard one of the speakers talk about, well, a couple actually, about how fragile a lean management system is. If senior management leaves that introduced it, very often the system leaves with it. There was that suggestion for Fragile production but it just didn’t…
Interviewee 2: Well, there was always a bit of divide in our project between the sort of socio side and the technical side. Trying to keep this simple and introduce it to an audience that might think this was pretty alien to begin with, we decided, I certainly decided, to keep it simple. The people who had looked at Japanese practice from a human resource standpoint said, “You realize that if you don’t continuously actively engage everybody in doing this what you wind up with is pro-forma compliance with ritual.” They have some tools and so forth. The real essence of it is engaging people.
Now you’ve got this hard term “lean” that sounds kind of technical, and it sounds hard. “Lean.” Going to hone it down.
Why don’t you call it, and this was a professor at one of the big Japanese Universities and a part of our team, said, “Why don’t you call it “fragile”?” and contrast it with what he called “robust,” which was the old manufacturing word, which doesn’t work very well, but it works in its own crude sort of way, it crawls along, It never runs, but it’s hard just to collapse completely, whereas their view was that this could, and that’s what they thought might happen. Coming out of Japan, that this would just be a total flop. That you just couldn’t get foreigners to do this.
We debated it and, by the way, as I say in this essay 25 years later, they had a point. We certainly have seen a whole lot of cases of people who go apply tools without context, without human context and what they get is not much for long. Should we have said something about that? I don’t know. I wanted to basically get this out and establish it as a different set of ideas before we got into telling people about, “Oh, and by the way, this requires continuous maintenance.”
Here we have the lean mobile. We’d really like you to get in this thing, turn the key, we didn’t push buttons back then. Then off you go, down life’s highway, it’s going to be better. The world’s going to be better place, it’s going to change the world. We’re goning to wait until down the road and around the bend before we mention, “Oh, by the way,” you actually have to pay attention while driving this thing and you have to get along with the other people in the vehicle, and you really need to do a lot of things that are more than just the technical stuff.
That reminds me that the one other dimension that could be debated that we got wrong that it says “Lean production.” “Lean production.” What we meant was the entire set of activities required to create value, product development, process development, production, supply management, customer management, general management. Well, we said production, and honestly I wasn’t aware of the problem with that. We were used to mass production, which was a system. This was the old GM system. Everybody knew that that had a product development element, it had a purchasing element, and it had a customer relations element. We thought, “What’s the problem?”
What the world heard, you know, there’s what the authors think and what the world hears and the only thing that really counts is what the world hears. What the world heard, I’m afraid, was factories or operations in a broader sense. It’s really quite striking to me the unevenness of the advance of these ideas. We were just talking the other day about the complete disappearance of the notion of target costing and working backwards on the process with suppliers. Just all disappeared in the outsourcing age of just, “Get the price down, do what it takes.” We ended up with a very incomplete system that works best when it is a complete system and I’m saying that production word didn’t help.
Now, what would we have said instead? We certainly thought about management, we spend a lot of time talking about management now. Other people want to talk about leadership, that’s okay, too. Again, you say, “Okay “lean?” Not perfect. “Production?” Not perfect. What would we have done instead?” I think we could have tried management.
Interviewer 2: You could’ve tried management, but when you formed LEI, the Lean Enterprise Institute, you got it right.
Interviewee 2: Thank you.
Interviewer 2: And that was another article in the HBR that you did together about ’96, and it was Lean Enterprise. I think that’s what we’re talking about, a business model, a business system which includes production it also includes management. It includes all of these things.