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