In the world, tools can operate independently. Take a hammer. If there’s a nail, a hammer is a great tool to use to either hammer the nail in or pull the nail out. But, within the context of, say, building a house, the hammer is just one tool amidst an army of tools, each having its own purpose and use. The system in this case is really the operation to build a house. Is it the same way with Lean? Can picking and choosing lean tools lead to success?
You can pick a tool here and there, but you’ll have very little understanding of how all of the tools in lean operate as a whole and within the system.
This observation was made recently by Deryl Sturdevant, the former president of Canadian Autoparts Toyota. In a recent interview, he shared some of his thoughts as he’s advised companies through their lean transformation. At one manufacturer: 1
A common characteristic of companies struggling to achieve continuous improvement is that they pick and choose the lean tools they want to use, without necessarily understanding how these tools operate as a system. (Whenever I hear executives say “we did kaizen,” which in fact is an entire philosophy, I know they don’t get it.) For example, the manufacturer I mentioned earlier had recently put in an andon system, to alert management about problems on the line.1 Featuring plasma-screen monitors at every workstation, the system had required a considerable development and programming effort to implement. To my mind, it represented a knee-buckling amount of investment compared with systems I’d seen at Toyota, where a new tool might rely on sticky notes and signature cards until its merits were proved.
An executive was explaining to me how successful the implementation had been and how well the company was doing with lean. I had been visiting the plant for a week or so. My back was to the monitor out on the shop floor, and the executive was looking toward it, facing me, when I surprised him by quoting a series of figures from the display. When he asked how I’d done so, I pointed out that the tool was broken; the numbers weren’t updating and hadn’t since Monday. This was no secret to the system’s operators and to the frontline workers. The executive probably hadn’t been visiting with them enough to know what was happening and why. Quite possibly, the new system receiving such praise was itself a monument to waste.
Let me underscore his message: A common characteristic of companies struggling to achieve continuous improvement is that they pick and choose the lean tools they want to use, without necessarily understanding how these tools operate as a system.
What’s your experience? Have you observed the same thing happening at companies?
- http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/Manufacturing/Still_learning_from_Toyota?cid=manufacturing-eml-alt-mkq-mck-oth-1402 ↩