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!”.