Jim Womack’s hansei on where lean has failed

Lean leading figure Jim Womack posted a sincere and critical reflection (hansei) on where Lean has failed and why not to give up. I was impressed when reading it and it reinforced my respect and admiration for the author.

You can read the August 29th, 2017 post on planet lean (http://planet-lean.com/jim-womack-on-where-lean-has-failed-and-why-not-to-give-up)

>Lisez-moi en français

Jim Womack is someone to take seriously when he expresses himself about Lean, so when he posts an article titled “where lean has failed” it is probably not just a clickbait nor a questionable joke. Indeed, the critical reflection Jim shares is truly about failure from his point of view. And his point of view with regards to Lean is one that really matters.

Where lean has failed

The failure is, in Mr Womack’s opinion, manyfold:

  • It is the failure to get big organizations to transform themselves in a Lean way and have, at least, “another Toyota” emerging.
  • It is the failure to reverse offshoring, despite the rational proof that companies would be better off keeping operations close instead of trading labor costs for logistics and quality costs.
  • It is the failure to see disaffection among the workers and the growing acceptance of things as they are, without attempt to resist or change them in the Lean Community itself.

This hurts.

I am impressed by the courage to analyze and acknowledge that situation of someone who dedicated his life to promote Lean and share the knowledge. After all the enthusiasm, hype, hope and successes, this must be bitter.

Many people in Mr Womack’s position would deny the situation and keep going on, their ego not allowing them to acknowledge failure. Jim Womack not only has the courage to do it, but refuses to give up and want to avoid the “muda of denial about the situation”.

What I see from my narrower and European (mainly in France) perspective is consistent with Mr Womack’s analysis: the number of lean managers and continuous improvement champions soared in the last years but no company advertises or gets attention because of drastic improvement of its performances.

Furthermore, when called for assistance in companies, I am most of the time appalled by the (very) limited competences of the people in charge of Lean or operational excellence, a fact also reported by Karen Martin in a post on the Lean Edge https://www.theleanedge.org/256088-karen-martin-technical-proficiency-and-leadership-acumen-can-you-nail-the-problem-statement-first-time-right/

So yes, “doing Lean” is reduced to running small kaizen workshops here and there without consistency nor link to a strategic intent. It is merely about patching broken processes,solving local problems at best, or opportunistic muda hunting.

This keeps the additional layer of “Lean” bureaucracy busy and living easy with a lot of complacency about local qualitative results. Once a 5S workshop went through the first 3Ss, they’re done and feel “Lean” now. This is how Lean looks like too often.

No wonder the questions about “what’s next” or “is lean dead?” arise.

Considering Lean transformations, like many armchair generals giving strategic advice in hindsight, I would say that Jim Womack and people around him did well  addressing the diagonal of the 2×2 change matrix: promoting the “pot of gold”, metaphor for reward and benefits of the change, as well as warning about the “alligator”, symbol of the danger of the status quo. I remember well Jim recommending to have a burning platform or even create a crisis to get the change done.

This was the rationale promoting the change, the Lean transformation.

What could have been underestimated was the other, emotional diagonal of the matrix. Many of the decision makers are in love with their “mermaid”. By definition, a mermaid cannot leave the sea and therefore the decision makers stay put, close to the object of love and happy with the current situation. A happiness, they believe, they can enjoy ONLY in their current situation.

Maybe the decision makers are risk averse and see nothing else than the frightening perspective of the “crutches”, the metaphor for risks and big efforts. Indeed, many decision makers may jeopardize their actual position if they dare going for a disruptive transformation with unforeseeable results. Leading a Lean transformation requires leadership, courage, confidence and the necessary freedom to act.

Why not to give up

Despite this bleak picture, Jim Womack is not ready to give up nor let “the muda of defeatism” get in his way. If no other Toyota is likely to emerge, other success stories can be reported. Successes may be experienced in and with start-ups for example.

Acknowledging the limits of the actual Lean promotion and Lean methods training ways, mainly through workshops and workbooks, Jim calls for “thinking hard about more effective ways to pass lean knowledge along to the next generation”.

The last paragraph of Jim Womack’s post sounds like a firm resolution “to rethink the (Lean community) tactics, stick to its purpose, and better understand the challenges preventing it from staying on course”.

I encourage everyone to read the original post as well as to have a look on the comments.

Personal conclusion

It is a sad read, but I can only agree. I empathize with Jim Womack and again, I am impressed by his courage and humility.

Even if Lean loses its shine, I still measure what it brought – and still brings – to me. I think that true Lean-understanding people, once “infected”, will not get away from Lean Thinking. I will continue to promote and use everything Lean at personal and professional level, wherever and whenever it’s meaningful, which should be pretty often. Fashionable or not.

My personal belief is that Lean (Thinking) will keep lingering in operations, but the emphasis will probably shift upstreams to Product and Process Development. I also think that the irresistible wave of digitalization and all the news techs around smart factories will reshuffle the cards on how to plan, organize, drive and strive. All new opportunities to reinvent business and the philosophy, methods and tools that must come with.

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When facing a choice, get clarity with the change matrix

The change matrix is primarily a tool to explain why people seem to resist change, but it can be used to make a decision when the appeal of the proposed change is facing some doubts about losing more than gaining.

Doing the exercise of filling the matrix should help getting clarity about the plusses and minuses of the change, and base the decision on some rational weighing.

In order to understand the matrix and the associated metaphors, I recommend watching the video.


When facing a choice with significant impact on current and future situation

An envisioned or proposed major change in life can be scary. Who never faced the dilemma of daring a change and face the uncertainty or keep everything as is for the sake of some “safety”?

The safety here can be nothing more than an illusion, but the familiarity of the current situation gives some impression to remain in control. In the current situation, everything seems predictable and known while a change will modify many things, adding a lot of unknown and uncertainty.

Furthermore the popular saying states that every improvement is a change but every change isn’t an improvement, adding to the fear of giving up something good for worse.

Relying only on gut feeling may not be the best way to make the decision unless one trusts his or her intuitions. The change matrix can bring some clarity when the exercise is done honestly.

Pot of gold and mermaid

Write down all promoted benefits as well as those the intuition suggests. What makes the change desirable and that CANNOT be gotten or achieved in current situation?

Switch to the mermaid and ask yourself what would make you ignore the pot of gold, something of great value ONLY provided in current situation.

The capital letters stand for extreme wording, a technique useful for identifying false assumptions. If it sounds weird or not true, the assumption is probably false or overstated.

Crutches and alligators

Assess the risks of change figured by the crutches. What can possibly go wrong with the change that WILL end up with SIGNIFICANT damage?

On the other hand what CATASTROPHE WILL happen by keeping the status quo?

Looking at the matrix

It is time to look at all quadrants and check in which direction the matrix points. Hopefully a clear indication is shown, either favoring change or recommending to stay put.

The last time I applied the matrix to a personal important choice I was surprised how clear the best choice appeared.

It was consistent with my intuition but was more elaborate, thus added much clarity to the best choice. The result could have been opposite and could have put a rationalized end to a fantasy. The clarity and the list of pro and cons gives great confidence about the decision to make. I really recommend to give it a try.

Possible biases

When facing a desirable change, one may overestimate the size of the pot of gold as well as the threat of alligators while underestimating the risks (the crutches) and the sex-appeal of the mermaid.

In plain English this means overestimate the gain or benefits of the change as well as the potential danger of not changing, thus making the change desirable. This looks much like fulfilling a self prophecy.

In order to complete the demonstration or reinforce the desirability of the change, the risks associated with the change are minimized or ignored and the advantages of the status quo downplayed.

Conversely, when facing a less desirable change and even more in case of an undesirable change, the person may evaluate the quadrants in an opposite manner: overestimating the number of crutches and the sex-appeal of the mermaid while underestimating the value in the pot of gold as well as playing down the threat of alligators.

Again the translation in plain English: to justify the rejection of a proposed change the risks of the change are magnified and the advantages of the status quo highlighted while the benefits of the change are questioned and the threat of not changing minimized or even denied.

I  order to avoid this pitfall, it is meaningful to share all (emphasize “all”) the elements of the choice in the most neutral manner to a person of confidence or (someone selected as) a coach. A new external point of view may question the rationale and propose a new perspective.


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