Where Lean Has Failed | Jim Womack | Planet Lean

Given two significant milestones this summer – the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Lean Enterprise Institute and the 10th anniversary of the Lean Global Network (about which, more next month) – I’ve recently found myself thinking about the original promise of the lean movement and the world that Dan Jones and I thought lean thinking could create as we wrote The Machine That Changed the World in 1990 and Lean Thinking in 1996.

Sourced through Planet Lean

Michel Baudin‘s comments: Jim Womack reflections about his vision’s failure to materialize should extend to the vision itself. He does not, at any point, envision the possibility that there might be anything wrong with his ideas. He thinks he made a “compelling case,” that simply failed to compel because it was not communicated properly. He exhorts followers not to succumb to defeatism and to keep plugging success stories. This is still not compelling. He needs to ask why a few more times and dig deeper.

I met Jim Womack almost 20 years ago at the Honda Engine Plant in Anna, OH. Kevin Hop was giving him a tour, and they walked into a meeting where I was working with a team of engineers on the design of new motorcycle engine assembly line. Later, I joined them for lunch in the Honda cafeteria. I remember the meeting but Jim Womack doesn’t; I ran into him at a conference a couple of years later and I was a stranger.

In the conversation, he didn’t pretend to be more than an outside observer to manufacturing. A Ph.D. in Political Science from MIT, he had never worked as a manager or an engineer in industry, but he had led a worldwide benchmarking study of the car industry in the late 1980s and, with Dan Jones, condensed the results into The Machine That Changed The World. The success of this book, in 1990, made him a guru, a status given him by others that he had neither claimed nor sought or at least that is the impression I had from our conversation.

Lean is intended to be a generalization of the Toyota’s Production System (TPS) and of its management system for use outside of Japan and in industries other than automotive. It has both engineering and management dimensions and was developed in Japan, which makes Jim Womack a surprising choice as a thought leader on this subject, given that he has neither an engineering background nor management experience in Manufacturing, and doesn’t speak Japanese.

Let’s try to imagine a reverse situation, where the objective is, say, to promote in Japan the practices of Silicon Valley. The equivalent of what we did in the US with Lean would be to anoint as a thought leader a doctor in Buddhist philosophy with no experience in software, computers or semiconductors, who doesn’t speak English. Such a person would most likely overestimate the impact of Buddhism on Silicon Valley — essentially limited to Steve Jobs — and would miss the unique subtleties of the Silicon Valley culture.

The Machine That Changed The World was a good read, but definitely an outsider’s perspective. It was Manufacturing as a spectator sport. Six years later, Lean Thinking was different. It was not a summary of research but a business book that attempts a theory of Lean.

Business books, and particularly best sellers, are intended to be read in one plane flight and have the depth and rigor of sales pitches. In my view, Lean Thinking was no exception, and I believe that its content is simplistic and responsible in part for the failures of Lean that Jim Womack regrets. Doubling-down on it and rethinking tactics, as Jim Womack advocates, is not the solution. It’s the content that needs an overhaul, not the packaging. The problem is the message, not the medium.

Where The Machine That Changed The World presented research, Lean Thinking has anecdotes. Where the first book presents facts and prudent inferences, the second contains sweeping generalizations and a theory. Perhaps, it was so easily accepted because such a theory was sorely lacking.

Mismatched Japanese original and English translation

As we know, TPS is not a system that was designed from scratch but one that emerged  from the solutions Toyota people found to overcome a succession of crises in the company’s growth (SeeTakahiro Fujimoto). These people, however, were no good at theory, and Toyota’s mission is building cars, not teaching the world how to make things, as reflected in the company’s own simplified translations of its internal documents (See “Wisdom” and “Continuous Improvement” in the Toyota Way).

The available literature pre-1996 described practices and tools but failed to explain why they did any good, how they fit together into a coherent whole, or where are the limits of their applicability. I see the attempt at a theory in Lean Thinking as brave but unsuccessful, in the sense that the result is not actionable. See Occam’s Razor, Value Added, and Waste for a review of specific points, or Principles About Principles.

The editors of Planet Lean preface Jim Womack’s article with “Lean has changed the world in many ways, even though the original vision of its founding fathers has failed to materialize.” In the lead, Jim Womack then refers to “the original promise of the lean movement and the world that Dan Jones and I thought lean thinking could create,” starting with the publication of The Machine That Changed The World in 1990. The implication is that they created a movement from scratch, where there had been nothing before.

This isn’t entirely accurate. By 1990, efforts to learn, adapt and implement ideas from Toyota and from several other leading Japanese companies had been underway in the US and Europe for a decade, not only in transplant factories and not only in the car industry, by pioneering managers and consultants, and some academics. It was done under a variety of names other than Lean, like TPS, JIT, or World-Class Manufacturing.

A tell-tale sign of this activity was the growing body of English-language literature available. Norman Bodek had started Productivity Press in 1979 and, through the 1980s, published translations of books by Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo, the big red book of Poka-Yoke examples, and others. To my knowledge, the first book on the topic by an American was Richard Schonberger’s Japanese Manufacturing Techniques (1982), followed by Doc Hall’s Zero Inventories (1983), Kiyoshi Suzaki’s New Manufacturing Challenge (1986), Masaaki Imai’s Kaizen (1986) and others.

The implementation of what Womack and Jones later called “Lean” was well underway. To people already involved, Womack and Jones were late comers, but the bandwagon was not that crowded and they were welcome to contribute. They were, however, not entitled to the mantle of founding fathers.

#LeanThinking, #JimWomack, #PlanetLean

33 comments on “Where Lean Has Failed | Jim Womack | Planet Lean

  1. Well explained Michel however, as they say ‘don’t hate the player, hate the game!’ History is full of examples of products and ideas that did not gain recognition until they were re-branded, re-marketed and re-discovered. There really isn’t a secret sauce most of Lean is logic, common sense, and understanding human behavior and team work.

    I don’t buy this theory that somehow the Japanese and their culture understand something that we don’t. It was American’s who taught them most of what they implemented. Deming, Juran …and their frequent ‘fact finding’ trips to the US plants. The Koreans did the same with Shipbuilding, learning from the British in British colleges.

    As Bob Emiliani makes clear, Frank Woollard at Morris Motors in England in the 1920’s and 30’s understood and implemented many of the principles and tools as well as, if not better than Toyota…given the technology available at that time. But not many people were interested, And his wisdom was not well communicated. We can at least be pleased that many more people are listening now… nearly 100 years later.

  2. I was one of those people who was introduced to JIT back in the late 1980’s. We also called it “World Class Manufacturing” and TPS, but JIT was the preferred acronym, in the U.S. anyway. And Yokoten did exist back then – that’s how I learned JIT/TPS. There were very few books and consultants available and the academics were non-existent, thankfully. We learned by visiting each other’s facilities. A lot of this was facilitated by AME and Bodek’s Productivity Inc. And a lot of what we learned was an offshoot of the work that the Shingijutsu group was doing in the northeast at that time, although I didn’t know that until much later.

    Anyway, that stuff worked and the results were amazing. I jumped in with both feet and never looked back. I was in senior management and I was able to introduce JIT in several different companies during my career. It always worked, no matter the location or the local culture. It all came down to realizing that the focus should be on “flow” and “time” and the best people to see these characteristics in real-time were the people in the gemba. Natural Work Groups and Cross-functional Teams did the real work, I just needed to guide them along as they/we learned.

    I started to use the term “Lean” in the late 1990’s when “JIT” was taken over by the proponents of a non-sensical inventory management program. But I kept doing what I had been doing for years. And it continued to work. The “Lean” community was OK for a while but it gradually drifted off course and gradually morphed into a “gimmick of the month club”. There was still some good work being done under the “Lean” banner but it became harder and harder to find.

    I am retired now, but I am trying to write down what I knew back then so it won’t be lost. And I haven’t yet run out of things to write about. I’m curious to see how far I get.

      • I was just referring to the metamorphosis that occurred around the turn of the century where the term “Just-in-time” or “JIT” was disconnected from the concept of a “production” management system and applied to an “inventory” management system.

        To quote the Toyota global website of today:

        “Just-in-Time” means making “only what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed.”

        The key word there is “making”. I wouldn’t have a problem if that is what was meant when people started using the term “JIT inventory”. Make the inventory when it is needed. But that was not what was commonly meant. More often than not, going to a “JIT inventory system” meant storing your inventory at the supplier rather than in your own warehouse. The supplier would deliver the inventory when you needed it – but the inventory was still there – just not on your books.

        JIT is all about “flow” of materials and information. And this “flow” is measured by “time”. But inventory is a consumer of “time”. There is no “flow”. “Time” should be used to make what you need, not to store what you don’t need. Thus the use of the term “JIT” with this type of inventory management system is “non-sensical”.

  3. Womack’s doubling-down on what has not worked is remarkable, as is the apparent lack of problem-solving — coming from someone who promotes problem-solving. Yes, there is much work on TPS that pre-dates Womack’s work and, as you say, the “movement” was well under way. Kenneth Wantuck wrote a wonderful book, “Just-in-Time for America,” published in 1989, which did a great job at capturing the human side of TPS – something Womack and Jones largely ignored for two decades. I wrote a lengthy post about Wantuck and his book on my blog.

  4. Not only did LEI model the wrong things in “Lean Thinking” by ignoring the foundational blocks of respect for people and problem solving, now they’re making another mistake as we near the tipping point of Lean’s managerial assimilation. Rather than offering up the collective learnings from all corners of the world and highlighting the widest path forward for those who have invested their lives into the transformation, they published The Lean Strategy,” offering themselves up as the ‘source of truth’ for the way forward. Wrong on both ends of the movement.

    Michel, I saw your comment on Katie’s post where you downplay Deming’s role in TPS, which surprises me. Process management and systems thinking came from Deming, both of which ARE the managerial manifestations of respect for people and problem solving. All of the TPS originators have acknowledged Deming’s role for its significance, so to suggest Deming wrote about what he learned from Toyota (not that he did not learn much because . . . he was a systems thinker and as such, a continuous learner), while presenting that in his books, is surprising.

    • Jim – RE: “Rather than offering up the collective learnings from all corners of the world and highlighting the widest path forward for those who have invested their lives into the transformation, they published The Lean Strategy,” offering themselves up as the ‘source of truth’ for the way forward. Wrong on both ends of the movement.” Well said.

  5. Not just the creators of TPS say things like this:

    “There is not a day I don’t think about what Dr. Deming meant to us. Deming is the core of our management.”

    – Shoichiro Toyoda
    Honorary Chairman and Director of Toyota

    • I am sure Shoichiro Toyoda has his reasons for saying this. I think highly enough of Deming to have devoted many posts in this blog to his legacy but, if all you studied was Deming’s works, how much would you learn specifically about TPS?

      • Who is suggesting ONLY studying Deming?

        I think reading and studying Deming AND TPS / Lean is a helpful combination. I think basic concepts like Deming’s flow chart from the customer to product development to production helps one understand a system and the Toyota approach… among other things that appear to have influenced Toyota (such as engaging everybody in not just generating improvement ideas, but letting employees test ideas, as Deming wrote about).

      • My point is that there is so little about TPS in Deming’s works that I would not recommend them to anyone wanting to learn this subject. And Deming’s ideas come in awkward packages that I certainly would not recommend as models of good writing.

        But many of Deming’s ideas about management have stood the test of time, in contrast to Peter Drucker’s. Peter Drucker was a much better writer whose ideas have not fared so well. That’s what I would recommend Deming for.

      • Michel – My point is not that somebody should read Deming to “learn about TPS.” It’s foundational, like the way one would study math before studying physics.

        I usually recommend this book ABOUT Deming’s ideas as a better introductory read. The author worked with Dr. Deming:

        “Dr. Deming: The American Who Taught the Japanese About Quality”


  6. But back to your main point, Michel, does the Deming crowd (those who attend conferences each year) sit around and bemoan the idea that Deming’s teachings have “failed” in that it’s by no means the default in most organizations?

    That doesn’t invalidate the ideas. Even GE is coming around to some of it, including eliminating annual reviews and replacing it with ongoing feedback, which is close enough to what Dr. Deming taught, I think. Jack Welch literally wrote that Deming’s ideas “were too theoretical,” which I’m sure some executives have said about Lean too.

    Even good ideas spread slowly. I recommend Dr. Atul Gawande’s article on slow ideas and fast ideas:


    • I agree that ideas can take a long time to spread. From the beginning of interchangeable parts technology in 1760s France to widespread adoption in the US in the late 1800s, it took over 100 years. And this was definitely a good idea.

      In manufacturing, an idea is good if its application provides a competitive advantage and slow spread is actually beneficial to the early adopters. It’s not in Toyota’s best interest to see all other carmakers implement TPS quickly and successfully.

      The problem with the ideas in Lean Thinking is not that they are spreading slowly, but that it’s not established that they are any good. It’s a version of Lean that doesn’t capture the essence of TPS. I see Womack’s post as an acknowledgment that it doesn’t have TPS’s record of providing a competitive advantage.

      Simplistic thinking even showed up inside his post, for example when he says: “And when Dan and I made a compelling case in Seeing the Whole in 2003 for locating production steps as near the customer as possible.”

      Sometimes it makes more sense to locate them near the supply of a material. Would you want to ship ore with a 1% concentration of the rare metal you want across the globe to refine it near the customer? If at all possible, you refine the ore near the mine and ship only the small quantities of unobtainium you are able to extract.

      If you extrude tubes that you cut to length, mark, and attach custom fittings to for each customer, you don’t necessarily want to have a generic tube making plant near every customer. It may make more sense to make the tubes in a central plant, and have only the customization steps done near each customer…

      At Honda, I wondered why the engine plant was 70 miles from the Marysville complex and not next door in Marysville. The reasons the Honda people gave were that (1) the environmental impact of the integrated complex would have been too great, and (2) they wanted to recruit locally and the assembly plants in Marysville had already drained the local labor pool.

  7. RE: “I see Womack’s post as an acknowledgment that it doesn’t have TPS’s record of providing a competitive advantage.” That’s right. The organizations that had the most success with Lean did not practice Lean as described (in various forms) by Womack and Jones. Their efforts were much more closely aligned with TPS/TW mindset, principles, and methods.

      • That’s not to say that other consultants/trainers don’t do a good job. Some do, some don’t. It depends. The point is whether they teach TPS well (or not) or Lean — even if taught according to Womack and Jones, it is different than TPS.

      • I totally agree. I was located in New England in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. That’s where I learned JIT/TPS. There was a multitude of opportunities to visit other manufacturing facilities and attend various workshops, seminars, discussion groups, etc. that was focused on this topic (primarily in Connecticut and Massachusetts). And Wiremold had a very visible presence in those activities. I didn’t learn until later that Shingijutsu was a driving force behind a lot of these efforts. I guess I learned by osmosis. When Lean became popular in the later 1990’s, I was glad to see the increased activity, but I knew enough TPS to know what to pay attention to and what to ignore. And, yes, Lean is not TPS, even less so today than 20 years ago.

      • “And, yes, Lean is not TPS, even less so today than 20 years ago.” Well put Bill. It is remarkable that over time Lean has drifted further from TPS, rather than closer to TPS.

  8. Professional bloggers and self-promoters argue over who REALLY understands lean? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Oh wait, it doesn’t really matter. Teaching others and showing respect is what counts

  9. Comment on LinkedIn:

    I attended the 2017 Annual Conference of IISE and presented Principles of Industrial Engineering. Lean systems as systems having 50% or 100% productivity advantage was a correct description for what TPS achieved in comparison to other earlier productive organizations. It is a wrong strategy to ignore the earlier productivity improvement discipline “industrial engineering’ altogether. The lean movement would have succeeded to a more extent if industrial engineers were included in the strategic thrust right from the start. Yes, still what Womack says is right. The lean transformation of systems giving a significant boost to productivity has to be continued by finding root causes for the delay in transformation projects and lower than expected results.

    • Reply on LinkedIn:

      Dear Narayana Rao KVSS, maybe I should seek to find if there is an evidence that industrial engineering was ignored when Lean ‘movement’ was started and was part of some strategy? Your statement just surprised me, that’s all, hence the query.

      • Comment on LinkedIn:

        Yes. The books on lean by Womack actually criticized IE. They did not interpret lean as an advance in IE or productivity movement. They did not recommend adding lean section in IE. They recommended a separate lean promotion office without any reference to IE department. In the Pittsburgh conference, I actually heard from professional IEs, that they were ignored by the lean movement.

      • There are many types of engineering involved with manufacturing, all of which are central in TPS but essentially ignored by the bulk of the “Lean movement.” I have worked under the Lean flag and never ignored them, and neither have people like Art Smalley or JT Black.

        Process engineers work on the physics and chemistry of the manufacturing process; manufacturing engineers on its industrialization in production lines; industrial engineers on how people work on the production lines; facilities engineers on the equipment, … Even Logistics has an engineering dimension. In large organizations you find different people with these titles; in SMEs, sometimes a single engineer wears all these hats.

        Social scientists downplay the engineering dimension of TPS because they don’t understand it. To be fair, many engineers, in turn, downplay the managerial/political/human dimension because they don’t understand it. That why you need thought leaders with a broad perspective, who actually see the entire elephant.

  10. Michel, thanks for starting this. I too an amazed that Womack and other academics who studied rather than implemented Lean have become such thought leaders. I like your final paragraph, “Social scientists downplay the engineering dimension of TPS because they don’t understand it. To be fair, many engineers, in turn, downplay the managerial/political/human dimension because they don’t understand it. That why you need thought leaders with a broad perspective, who actually see the entire elephant.” and I would add that the key is to understand it. That understanding comes from actually doing it….and doing it as a manager within a company, rather than doing is as a consultant at arms length…is both a far more difficult task and a far more effective teacher.

    • It’s good to hear from you. In principle, I agree with you that people who have implemented Lean within a company, thoroughly and successfully, have the best knowledge. And some of them can become good teachers afterward. But it doesn’t happen often. Good managers don’t always make good consultants and vice versa. The two are different professions, best suited for different personalities and require different skill sets.

      In manufacturing, before becoming consultants, I think people should first put in 5 to 10 years as engineers or managers in a manufacturing company after coming out of school. If they are comfortable in that environment and adept at managing their careers in it, they are better off staying and rising through the ranks.

      On the other hand, if they like to dig into issues in depth and are uncomfortable implementing policies they don’t believe in, they are corporate misfits and are better off becoming consultants. Even the founder of our profession, Frederick Taylor, followed this path.

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