Doing wrong things much better

I sincerely believe that experimenting with Lean tools was key to spread Lean awareness, ease the principles and tools acceptance and contribute to the Lean popularity.

This was particularly okay in the “tools age”, when Lean was understood as a nice and handy toolbox.

Yet limited and non sustainable successes were hints that Lean could not be “just a toolbox”. Jim Womack, Dan Jones, John Shook and others decoded and explained Lean’s underlying philosophy, the craftsmanship making tools even more powerful, able to transform organizations, save companies and yield significant and sustainable results. So much more than tools.

Unfortunately very few people and organizations understood and embraced Lean Management. This leaves most of Lean tool users stick to their favorite tools, and like kids fascinated by the hammer still run around looking for nails to hit. Any nails.

Ironically the most “successful” organizations with Lean succeed to do wrong things much better.

“successful” here means seemingly good with implementing Lean tools, most probably scoring good on maturity or awareness checks, yet not getting full benefits of Lean in terms of true performance.

What do I mean with “doing wrong things much better”?

Take 5S. The workplaces are neat, clean, free from clutter and with lots of visual indications about where to put things, how to behave and so on. The janitor kit is top notch and the daily a day weekly cleaning schedule is displayed. This good condition is maintained for years now.
That’s all good, but 5S is not about cleaning.

What would be expected after achieving to maintain a clean and neat environment is to eliminate the need for cleaning. Reinforcing cleaning discipline and improving cleaning tools is just doing the wrong thing (keeping on cleaning) much better.

Example number two: rolling out SMED for quick changeovers on all machines seems to be a good practice as the changeovers are necessary evils, do not add value and drain some productive capacity.

Eliminating all the wastes during changeovers is therefore a Lean driven organization’s objective, right?

No it’s not.

Machines with excess capacity vs. customer demand are no good candidates for SMED. The excess capacity should be used to change over more frequently, allowing batch size and Lead Time reduction (this is Little’s law) as well as enhancing flexibility.

Further reducing the changeover duration on machines with excess capacity for the sake of rolling out SMED and “be Lean” will burn up limited resources without benefits for the system as a whole.

  • How many additional widgets can be sold thanks to a global SMED rollout?
  • How much Operating Expenses can be reduced?
  • How much inventories can be reduced?

If these questions are left without convincing answers, the system will not have any benefits but will incur the costs associated with the global SMED rollout.

Applying SMED on a machine with excess capacity is doing the wrong thing (changing over faster a machine that does not require it) much better (it is faster indeed, probably to let the machine idle a longer time).

Example number three: Value Stream Mapping

Its ability to reveal the wastes and obstacles to smooth and quick flow made Value Stream Mapping (VSM) a highly praised and favorite Lean tool. It is used by waste hunters to surface the hidden wastes and improvement points in any process. This is typically a beautiful and strong hammer looking for nails to hit.

Not so seldom do the Value Stream Mappers map a process in search for improvements without consideration of the process’ usefulness. Spending time and using up resources to analyse and improve a useless or very secondary process is nothing more than doing the wrong things much better.

So, what’s missing?

Two things are usually missing in Lean-tools savvy organizations that would bring them to a next level of performance: a system-wide understanding of causes-and-effects and focus.

A system-wide understanding of causes-and-effects means stopping to believe that the system-wide optimum is the sum of all local optima. in other words, getting rid of wastes everywhere will end up with a waste-free system.

Systems are complex, with many subsystems interacting dynamically. Local improvements will not automatically improve the system as a whole because many local optima will compete against each others. An improvement here can severe performance there.

Without understanding the system’s physics and how the subsystems operate, the local improvement initiatives are very likely to end up unnoticed, or worse counterproductive from a broader perspective.

Once the system’s physics are understood, it is key to identify the few leverage points where an action will have significant effect on the system as a whole. Once these leverage points identified, the limited resources must focus on them and not be wasted anywhere else.

How can it be done?

The answer is simple: Theory of Constraints.

Theory of Constraints (ToC) is a body of knowledge that is all about finding and leveraging the limiting factor within a system: the constraint.

Once the constraint identified, the Lean toolbox as well as Lean Management principles and even Six Sigma come in handy to leverage it and get more out of the system.

Used in a synergy cocktail ToC puts Lean on steroids and yields incredible results.

As a focusing “tool” ToC avoids burning up precious and limited resources on the wrong subjects and wrong spots, avoids “doing wrong thing much better!”.

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

One thought on “Doing wrong things much better

  1. Hi Chris,
    Let me begin my response by stating that LEAN’s historical evolution throughout the Western world has been (and continues to be) problematic. It’s problematic from the standpoint of the legacy thinking and behaving that’s resulted from getting its start “ON THE WRONG FOOTING.” Instead of starting off with a clear and overarching emphasis on CREATING AND SUSTAINING VALUE – especially in the eyes/mind of the customer – Westernized Lean Thinking was primarily focused on lowering operating costs through the elimination of wastes. Also, lost in the early translation, was a clear and emphatic emphasis on the role that the human element within the overall SYSTEM plays in ensuring the on-going viability of that SYSTEM. According, the application of or mimicking the use of various “methods/tools/techniques” became the measure of success rather than the performance of the overall SYSTEM in the eyes/mind of the most critical stakeholder… THE CUSTOMER.

    That said… YES, there’s value to be found in the ability of an organization to leverage a multitude of methods/tools/techniques in addressing its SYSTEM performance issues. And regardless of what Body of Knowledge (BoK) those methods/tools/technique may emanate from, any one or any combination of them carries the potential for being “wrongly” applied. What do I mean by that you may wonder? Well, when I state that any method/tool/technique can be mis-applied, I’m mostly referring to the application of such methods/tools/techniques in too narrowly defined of a context. As many – if not all – CI/OpEx practitioners know/understand (especially those familiar with TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES), the application of CI/OpEx-related methods/tools/techniques in a limited (i.e., point solution/fix) context is likely to result in some degree of localized improvement which tends to be temporary in nature and does little to enhance the overall performance of the SYSTEM. In fact, such narrowly focused improvements carry the potential for denigrating the overall performance of the SYSTEM. This is particularly the case when practitioners do not take into consideration a broader SYSTEM perspective; that is, taking into consideration how the existence of a localized problem may be (and often is) interconnected and interdependent with other parts of the SYSTEM in which it exists.

    In the case of applying ToC’s 5 Focus Steps (5FS) as a “method/tool/technique” for enhancing the performance (i.e., throughput velocity) of any particular part of a SYSTEM, doing so may or may not make good sense… just as has been the case in the early days involving the spread of Lean Thinking. What’s absolutely critical to take into consideration – and establish a solid understand from the get-go – when attempting to resolve any issue within the context of an overall SYSTEM – is the fact that improving the performance of a part of the SYSTEM, does NOT guarantee an improvement in performance of the entire SYSTEM. All too often, making such isolated improvements results in a complete stagnation or deterioration of the performance of the SYSTEM as a whole.

    [Note: Such narrow-sighted focusing is typically associated with placing too narrow an intent on what the methods/tool/techniques are intended – by their original developers/implementers – to facilitate. In the case of Lean Thinking, it was too narrow a focus on “eliminating wastes” that caused a disconnect between the use of the methods/tools/techniques and the sort of sustainable improvements that are the intent of TRUE [HOLISTIC] LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING. In the case of ToC, there has been a similarly narrow focus on “improving the throughput velocity” of any part of a SYSTEM that is identified as being a “constraint.” And when the 5FS technique results in the subordination of all other elements of SYSTEM in order to increase the throughput of the constraining element, there are potentially unseen/unrecognized negative consequences. In reality, focusing on improving the throughput velocity of a constraint – in and of itself – may NOT be either the best or a complete answer to improving the overall performance of the SYSTEM at hand.]

    Ergo, what’s really been the missing link in achieving a more “robust” (i.e., perpetually effective and sustainable) approach to pursuing continuous improvement and an increasingly higher order/state of operational excellence is the complete SYSTEMS THINKING part of the equation. Simply stating that a particular method/tool/technique is being applied to part of the overall SYSTEM does NOT constitute SYSTEMS THINKING. Ergo, when the 5FS approach specifically takes into consideration the impact of the subordination process/actions and how it/they might influence the behavior of other interconnected and interrelated parts of the SYSTEM, that will be a step in the right direction. As things now stand, TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING already contains provisions for gaining such SYSTEM level insight and understanding. It does so by tracking the “VALUE” (from the customer’s perspective) that’s being added across an end-to-end process and throughout an entire SYSTEM. If the customer can obtain/receive more value by increasing the SYSTEM’s throughput, steps will be taken to adjust all inter-related/interconnected elements t elements such that equal or greater amounts of VALUE can/will be generated by the SYSTEM.


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