I am so excited to present to you this interview I had the opportunity to conduct with Art Smalley. In my mind, Art brings a voice of reason to the rest of the Lean world. He is one of the few Americans to work for the Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan. He worked under one of Mr. Taiichi Ohno’s early students. You can learn more about Art at the end of the interview in his Bio section. In this interview, you’ll learn the following:
- From behind closed doors, why he believes Toyota executives would shake their heads in confusion at the Lean movement in America. Why? Because Lean Deployments in American actually aren’t lean.
- What is it exactly he likes about the Lean Startup movement?
- Why results and pragmatism are the essence of Lean – not tools or methods.
- What is it that Art is still working on learning?
Without further ado, enjoy the interview with Art Smalley and be sure to check out our other interviews with leaders in continuous improvement.
Hi Art, and thanks for taking the time to speak to my audience. Could you please introduce yourself and your work to my readers?
Greetings and thanks for the interview request. My name is Art Smalley and I have a fairly varied background. I lived in Japan for close to ten years as a student back in the mid 1980’s and then later working for Toyota Motor Corporation in Aichi Prefecture. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Taiichi Ohno’s Kamigo Engine Plant which was long considered the model for TPS in many regards. I eventually left Toyota and actually started a small company in Japan with a colleague which provided engineering services to Toyota overseas plants. Later I returned to the United States and worked as Director of Lean for a Tier One automotive supplier called Donnelly Corporation.After executing a successful transformation effort there I spent almost five years as a consultant with McKinsey & Company where I learned a few things about strategy and operations from a more traditional standpoint. Eventually back in 2002 however I set up my own company Art of Lean, Inc. and more recently co-founded the Lean Leadership Academy with my colleague Sam MacPherson. I have authored three books so far (Creating Level Pull, A3 Thinking, Toyota Kaizen Methods) and have plans to eventually write some more. I help a variety of different clients implementing lean transformations.
We both worked at Toyota – you were there much longer than I was. I spent time in supply parts distribution, not manufacturing. So, my perspective might be slightly different than yours. In your opinion, if someone at Toyota were to host a luncheon with everyone in the current lean movement, what reprimands would they have? What advice would they give?
I can’t really speak for other people from Toyota. That would not be proper and I would just be putting words in their mouth. In general Toyota executives try to be polite and supportive when addressing external audiences. There is no trash talking and they are pretty inwardly focused. I don’t think externally they would be very critical of others as it would be considered bad etiquette.
However behind closed doors and with close confidants when I ask a lot of Japanese about Lean in the U.S. they just shake their heads in dismay and profess confusion to put it mildly. I will leave it at that. On the advice front most of us from places like Kamigo where TPS really developed hesitate to give advice without viewing something specific like your operations and conducting some form of getting the facts as a first step. Otherwise we are just shooting in the dark and giving empty advice. I can be a little bit of a loose cannon at times but try to keep it direct and on point.
Conversely, do you feel that Toyota has lost its way somehow?
I don’t think Toyota has lost its way too much. The way is still understood however I think Toyota is a victim of its own success and the old leadership has given way to new leaders and new challenges. I don’t know how well they will fare over the next two decades. For perspective when I joined Toyota for example the company consisted of 70,000 employees in Japan and very very few (overseas) manufacturing outposts that basically did limited assembly of vehicles. All key engineering work and production for engines and transmissions and chassis were exported from Japan. Today Toyota has over 200,000 employees worldwide and there are still about 70,000 Japanese in the company in Japan. That is a tremendous accomplishment when you stop and think about it. In other words today non-Japanese outnumbered Japanese two to one in the company.
However the turnover rate is higher on the non-Japanese side and experience level is generally lower. Toyota struggles at times overseas due to its growth and any company would in transferring its systems overseas. I’d still give them an A- in Japan, a B for most overseas Toyota plants I visit. The average Lean company I visit gets about a C- grade in comparison.
In my mind, you’re a very influential voice in what I call “real lean”. You’ve been vocal in the past about some problems you see in the lean movement. Can you please explain to my audience what problems you see and how we might course-correct?
No sure I can do justice to the question or solution space. There is actual TPS as practiced and developed by Toyota in Japan with of course the various inputs and influences they openly acknowledge. Somehow in the U.S. and other countries the Lean movement is off on its own tangent which is quite different in some cases. People like to be creative and make stuff up in the U.S. and if it sells and makes them famous all the better.
However the facts are that very few companies in the U.S. are able to produce results via their lean efforts over a three to five year period. Most flatten out quickly or fail to produce much in the way of results at all. Many experience a decline or regress after a few years, etc. That does not happen in Toyota with actual TPS or if it does it is recognized as a serious problem and addressed accordingly.
The U.S. lean movement is happy with its tools and workshops approach and fuzzy improvement numbers which seem to fade away or regress over time. The lean system in the U.S. is set up mainly by consultants (internal and external) for the benefit of consultants in a lot of ways. Not sure I see that changing at all to be honest. Fixes depend upon the situation of the exact company in question so it is tough to comment without the facts of the matter.
I visited a place once where critical machines were down that day and they had a major on-time delivery problem costing tons of money. The lean program wanted to do 5S and some other stuff on the periphery. I left shaking my head and wondering what a strange world I live in.
So, I have a pretty big beef with current lean practitioners. I see a large oprah-ization of lean and I see many of what Taiichi Ohno called “catalog engineers“. Here’s one issue that bothers me. As you and I know, at Toyota Material and Information Flow Analysis was used – not as the catalyst for Kaizen, but often toward the tail end. It’s purpose was very specific and has an important albeit narrow purpose.
BUT, these days, the lean movement has made Value Stream Mapping an almost mandatory part of anything related to improvement. Some authors who have written about Value Stream Maps even call it strategic and all-encompassing. Maps everywhere. Managers of value streams all over the place. What do you think? Am I over-reacting?
Well this is sort of a long and twisting story. Maybe some perspective here will help for the readers. When I came back to the U.S about the same time as John Shook we noted the strange bizarre world of Kaizen events in the early to mid 90’s that were all the rage. The contents linked to TPS concepts but the week long workshop package and implementation style was pretty different from actual TPS beliefs and practices in Japan. That is a long story for another day perhaps. Anyway a few companies became famous after working with entities like TBM and Shingijutsu. Most others did not succeed and had little to show for the efforts. More than a few instances I observed actually blew up and resulted in union drives, no results, and bad feelings. Of course those are never reported at the lean conferences by design.
Anyway John and I and others were wondering how to correct this phenomenon. At the time John had just finished a stint working in the Toyota Supplier Support Center in the U.S. TSSC practiced the act of having its internal consultants draw material and informational flow diagrams for learning purposes on the part of the consultant. It is a good tool to see flow, measure lead-time, see where inventory accumulates, and think about scheduling and pull systems, etc. John and Mike Rother and Jim Womack decided this could be a powerful tool to get people away from event based workshops which had little to no connectively to big picture stuff, the customer, and overall flow, etc. So they collectively created the workbook known as Learning to See: Value Stream Mapping. It was a big hit and changed Lean a fair amount from the overly event and tool driven model it had become. That is the positive side at least.
On the negative side it became a compliance type requirement of everyone to suddenly draw these maps everywhere as part of Lean. LEI even promoted that thinking at conferences, letters, workshops, etc. because they believed in the tool and it generated lots of money for them in all honesty. And certainly it helped some companies no doubt. However Toyota does not really draw these maps internally and did not historically. The maps were a particular tool used in special limited situations by very few people. I never drew one, neither did my boss who worked under Mr. Ohno and spent his entire career in the company. And Mr. Ohno certainly never drew one. There is no such thing as a Value Stream Manage in Toyota. That part is just opinion propagation by the Lean Enterprise Institute as they thought it was a good idea.
The idea of the map and usage is fine as long as you understand its purpose and limitations. It was not designed to be used for quality, productivity, cost, safety, and a whole host of other things. Originally it was a delivery and lead-time reduction mapping technique and that is all.Unfortunately it somehow became a requirement for everyone to do regardless of the situation. I see books and stuff talking about how to do value stream maps in product development etc. and Toyota actually does no such thing. They use different tools and techniques to compress lead-time in product development. Shrug. If the tool works I tell people to go ahead and use it. The thinking process and results are what matter. Sadly I don’t see proper thinking on the usage of the tool just blind compliance and minimal results.
John, Mike, and Jim all know this as well and have tried to correct it over the years in various ways but once the genie got out of the bottle I don’t think there was a way to put it back inside. The same is true with Standardized Work, A3 Reports and other stuff. I call it all part of the Lean Wall Paper phenomenon.
What do you think of the Lean Startup movement? I personally feel Lean Startup stays true to the spirit of the Toyota Production System – of actual improvement. In their case, of actually building a product people will buy.
I read the book and like it. The nice thing is that it seems to keep it practical and focused on the basics of the customer, the product, the process, rapid execution, results, and feedback loops, etc. It is not overly mandating tool usage or compliance and seems to promote actual thinking and improvement.
Now let me switch to a personal question. You are a recognized expert practitioner and teacher in the Toyota Production System. Having said that, what is it you still don’t know? Can you share with us 3 things you are still working on learning or trying to get better at?
I’ll touch upon one thing as an analogy and give a personal example. When I joined Toyota I asked my boss how long it would take to become a good engineer and get promoted. He thought it would take seven years to learn the engineering side. Ten to twelve years to become an assistant manager, fifteen to twenty years to become a manager, and with luck and ability 25+ years to become a department general manager for example. Very few people achieve that level in Toyota for perspective.
What I eventually realized is that Toyota has no accelerated process for developing leadership. Toyota has the typical Japanese custom of bottom up training, apprenticeship, and learning by doing when the opportunity presents itself. There are benefits to that approach but one clear weakness is what do you do when you go overseas and need to develop leaders more quickly? How do I now make a leader in two years instead of twenty? Toyota has made some progress in this area but it is not their specialty or background. It is a real problem as I meet Toyota leaders in overseas plants and they are not always fully ready for the position they are placed it. Then factor in managerial turnover and other stuff and Toyota has a problem on its hands overseas.
Toyota plants overseas tend to cycle up and down in terms of performance and TPS and it ties back to leadership ability in the facility. The plants in the Japan don’t experience this phenomenon as much and it ties back to experience and leadership, etc. So I spend a lot of time these days working on this problem and learning about the process of leadership development. Compressing the time frame to develop a leader is an interesting topic and a difficult one. Most of what exists in this area in Lean is off base and not very helpful. I hope to produce something better in the next couple of years.
Thanks Art. Is there anything else you’d like to share with my audience?
Good luck and thanks for the interview. Remember that if you are not obtaining results from your lean efforts then something is wrong. Repeating a process over and over and just expecting better results is insanity to paraphrase Albert Einstein. Sometimes I think the Lean movement is guilty of this as well.
About Art Smalley
Art Smalley has over two decades experience with the Toyota Production System and leadership development. Art was one of the few Americans to ever work for Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan. Art learned TPS principles first hand at Kamigo Engine Plant which was founded under Taiichi Ohno and to this day remains the preeminent model for many aspects of the Toyota Production System. In addition Art worked with Russ Scaffede as Director of Improvement on a highly successful lean turnaround of Donnelly Corporation in the 1990²s. Later Art also worked for several years at the international consulting firm of McKinsey and Company along as serving as a senior instructor at the Lean Enterprise Institute. Art has published three books to date on a variety of topics including JIT scheduling methods, A3 Thinking, and Kaizen Methods. Two of these works have won Shingo Prizes for Research. In addition Art was inducted into the Shingo Academy for lifetime accomplishments.
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