What You Can And Cannot Learn About Manufacturing From Books

I found the following reader’s question in another blog:

“I’m new to Lean and reading all I can find about it, but is there something specific I need to look out for; is there something I should know that I won’t find in the books?”

It’s been centuries since the book was the state of the art in communicating knowledge, and readers needed technical support on how to use one:

Millenials may be the last generation for which “book smart” is synonymous with educated. But books, even printed books as opposed to ebooks, are still essential to learning, and in particular to learning Lean.

So I have the following recommendations about the extent to which you can learn Lean from books and how to choose them:

Value Book Learning

map-readingPre-GPS, some people were capable of finding where they were on a map and plot a course to their destination, while others had to ask for directions. The key skill of the map readers was connecting abstract symbols on paper with the objects they could see, like road signs, railroad tracks, rivers, bridges, landmarks, etc. Likewise, a small minority of readers is able to learn techniques in a book and apply them in their work. As of now, it is a rare ability and those who have it should make the most of it, but I believe is is not innate and can be acquired through practice.

Da Vinci robot from Intuitive Surgical
Da Vinci robot from Intuitive Surgical

Some years back, as I was visiting the manufacturing plant of Intuitive Surgical,  a Silicon Valley maker of surgical robots, I was surprised by how much of the line design choices I agreed with, and asked my guide, the engineer who had led this effort, if he had gotten any external help. “No,” he said, “but I’ve been using this book,” and he showed me his copy of Lean Assembly. He didn’t know he was talking to the author. Last year, I returned to this company with visitors from Spain. Since my first visit, sales had grown 20-fold from $50M/year in sales to $2B, and assembly operations, on a much larger scales, were even more impressive. The VP of Manufacturing asked me to autograph his copy of the book. I have not made a dime in consulting from this company, but their plant is a showcase, in part because they had an engineer who, among other talents, could read a book and apply what he learned in it.

Know What You Can And Cannot Learn From a Book

Learning from a book is cheap and fast, but it doesn’t work for every skill. Text is sequential, and therefore anything that can be reduced to a sequence of instructions can be learned in a book. Graphics can present two-dimensional information, like shop floor layouts or materials and information flow maps, but books become less and less effective as the number of dimensions increases.

Edward Tufte calls this the challenge of escaping flatland. You can attempt it on the page, but you can also use other media. Even with just three dimensions, it is easier to visualize a machine or a product on a screen where you can rotate it every which way than through multiple projections in a book. And the book becomes even more ineffective when motion is involved. To explain how a differential gear works, you truly need animation, as in the following example:

From a book, you can learn and become proficient in a programming language but you can’t learn how to pronounce Japanese or pry loose a stuck garbage disposal. A book can walk you through the installation of a development environment on your computer, and through examples that promptly enable you to write and debug code. It’s a more effective medium for this purpose than video, and, for some, the ability to flip back and forth between sections even makes a printed book superior for this purpose to an ebook.

In Japan, in the late 1970s, I met a Pole who had fallen in love with the country as a sailor on a merchant ship during a stopover in Kobe. He had bought himself a teach-yourself-Japanese book and, during his travels, collected pronunciation samples by asking Japanese tourists to read the book into a tape recorder. When I met him, he was writing, in Japanese, a PhD dissertation in shipbuilding at the University of Tokyo. He later became a Japanese citizen and started a software company that is still in business.

With the garbage disposal, words and pictures on paper won’t help you nearly as much  as a 3-minute video, and the same is true of many other tasks like changing a headlight bulb in a car or cutting a mango. More generally, books are an old medium, and easier to read sequentially than to search for answers. For that, you turn to the web and usually do find answers, of varying quality.

The bottom line is that your learning from books, supplemented as needed by other media, can be made to work in many technical and even managerial subjects. Where it least works is on people skills.

Be Selective In Your Choice Of Books!

If you really want to read “all you can find” about Lean, you will waste your time on many fluff pieces that are little more than infomercials. You should select books that address your needs, so that you can apply what you learn. Depending on whether you are a plant manager, a materials manager, or a manufacturing engineer, and what industry you work in, your needs are different. General introductions may entertain and even inspire you, but they are not actionable.

“Lean” is not a protected label in any way. Anyone can slap it onto whatever they are selling and has, for over 25 years. It means that you have to look beyond the label. It’s for you to know exactly what you want to learn about. Personally, I reserve the term “Lean” for the Toyota Production System (TPS) and reasonable adaptations of it for use outside the car industry.

Within the car industry, talking about Lean allows other car makers to adopt all or part of TPS without explicitly referencing a competitor; outside of it, the term “Lean” emphasizes the generic value of the approach, downplays its foreign car industry origin, and makes it easier to accept. In health care, for example, borrowing ideas from car manufacturing to use in hospital operations has little appeal, and playing it up is poor salesmanship.

Be wary of books that claim to combine multiple approaches. If you want to learn Lean, study Lean; if you want to learn Six Sigma, study Six Sigma. But, if you study “Lean Six Sigma,” you will learn neither. To make Lean Six Sigma, you start by gutting the statistical content of Six Sigma, keeping only the black belt certification system and the DMAIC problem-solving outline, and then graft it on to a tiny subset of Lean that, in particular, omits people development.

There is almost no aspect of Lean that can be explained with just words, and you should check out the illustrations in the book, how many there are and of what kind. If all you see is pie charts, stacked-bar charts and assorted staples of business slideware, you are probably better off skipping the book. It is also not enough that it should contain Value Stream Maps or other forms of abstract charts with bubbles and arrows. It should also contain layout diagrams showing the movements of materials and people, as well as sketches or photographs of shop floor scenes, and the illustrations should be duly annotated to show that they are there for communication, not decoration.

Shop floor scene from Japanese publication
Shop floor scene from Japanese publication

If you are going to apply what you learn in a book, it will become a dog-eared reference on your desk. To serve you well in this manner, it needs to be searchable. In this area, ebooks have the edge but printed books compete with such features as a detailed table of contents, an index, and an introduction that is a guided tour. Their presence is also a sign that the author cares about the reader experience.

#BookAboutLean, #Lean