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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Reflecting on Lean – Lean Confusion by Jill Jusko

Lean confusion is a 3-page article by Jill Jusko, posted on industryweek.com on Aug 13, 2010. Despite the time past, this article is still actual and may well continue to remain that way. This post is friendly recension of mine, having read it long after its publishing (2016 vs. 2010).

Jusko’s article starts on the love-hate debate about Lean, even if not expressed in those terms, between proponents crediting Lean (Manufacturing) for many measurable benefits while opponents deny them.

Why the diversity of opinions regarding lean? (…) answer is that people are confused.” both about what defines Lean as well as how to implement it.

In order to clarify what lean is, Jusko proposes Jim Womack’s definition “to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.” before quoting more of Womack’s in-depth explanation about Lean Thinking.

That’s the problem with Lean definitions. Either you tell them in a concise way, which may not suffice for the listener to correctly understand the intent nor grasp the full extend of it, or you’ll have to deliver a mini conference on it. None of these two options being certain to avoid misunderstandings or negative shortcuts.

In reality, the definition of lean frequently varies depending upon whom you speak with — whether it should or not.“ the article goes on. Yes, still true. This is depending both on who explains and who listens.

For instance, talking to a senior executive who has only very few time to listen to the explanation, an “elevator pitch” is required, even so “doing more with less”,  while perfectly true may end up with undesirable, mostly social, effects. On the other hand, going for a more detailed explanation may leave the impression Lean is difficult to explain – and understand – or the proponent is not mastering enough his subject to keep it short.

Even so Lean is strategic and should be considered so, many organization want the quick wins and go for the “tactical” implementation, which is more about the Lean tools than Lean Thinking and developing a Lean culture. “execution — or lack thereof — is a significant contributor to a lean implementation’s success” Jusko reports.

On page 3 of Jusko’s article, the “discussion” goes on in the section “what’s missing?” with two experts quotes, one about the necessary focus on machinery, the other about the importance of the human side. Both are right, but their explanations put that way may just… keep readers confused?

If I can put my two cents in, I would advise to go for the human side first. Changing anything on machinery with a deep knowledge about it can be long and deceptive, while properly using the available means – train people, organize work and flow better, avoid stoppages and breakdowns, etc. – yields higher return on investment.

The article ends with a kind of warning about asking “What’s Next Too Soon”, still true today as so many managers are convinced to “be lean” despite the facts and figures about their organization’s performance. Read “We are all Lean now. What’s next?” on this subject.

Few articles may keep their freshness after such a relatively long time after being published. It’s worth reading the original here:


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Cost and inventory reduction, right target?

Lego_022aWaste and costs reduction has almost become the definition of Lean for many people as well as an irresistible lure for most executives and managers.

Yet costs and inventory reduction, is this the right target?

In the various definitions proposed by Lean theorists, including Jim Womack, priority is given to identifying and creating value for customers. Using just needed resources is only a way to achieve this while seeking a competitive advantage. Reducing costs and make savings is only a corollary effect of this achieved frugality, not a prime objective.

>Lisez cet article en français

Why this obsession about waste / costs?

Lean has long been considered being something for operations: Production, Logistics … as its first name “Lean Manufacturing” could suggest. Indeed, first attempts and successes happened in the workshops and warehouses, on shop floor.

Operations guys have little leverage to create value for the customers. Conversely they can improve almost infinitely operations seeking to be more efficient, to speed up the flow or to reduce defects.

These improvements, synonyms of savings, quickly raised management’s interest in order to justify related expense of these initiatives with ROI and reap the “promised” gains.

However, most of the time these approaches do not produce the expected measurable results and generate frustration among actors although they often see dramatic improvements at their level .

Frustrations, failures, how is this possible?

First one must understand that local initiatives are often disconnected from the purpose of the organization / company. They “improve” activities or processes without a prior validation about their system-wide usefulness and contribution to the higher objectives of the organization / company.

The most disappointing case is to have improved a doomed process or one being itself a waste. In such a case, time and resources were consumed in vain. Deadly sin.

In a less extreme but frequent case, time and resources were consumed to improve a marginal process, which will be insignificant to the overall performance, despite the fact it looks spectacular in situ.

Second, one must remember that the cost and/or inventory reductions necessarily face an absolute limit, which is zero. Once there is no more spending and/or any inventory, this is the end of “continuous” improvement and ironically… an optimum.

Of course there is a practical limit before zero, from which the activities can not proceed satisfactorily neither for customers nor for other stakeholders. But this practical limit > zero only reduces the overall potential of cost and/or inventory reductions.

In contrast, sales growth is virtually unlimited. Although productive resources are saturated, it is always possible to provide new, additional value added services, such as express delivery, personalization, premium services, etc.

But this lever, far more powerful and faster to implement, contrary to general belief, is rarely used.

What alternatives to achieve success?

Those who embraced Lean Management understand that all improvement efforts must be aligned with the purpose of the organization / company, i.e. the need for improvements is derived from the Goal, strategic objectives and necessary conditions to achieve strategic objectives.

Therefore, Lean is only conceivable top-down, from the strategic intent to shop floor actions. Then, for people to apply coherently tools and methods, instead of locally cherry-picking any good looking idea, top management must dictate the needs to cover or better, communicate in transparent manner strategic intents and the cascade of necessary conditions to achieve high level objectives, thus the Goal.

Once these necessary conditions known, operators can measure the gap between the desired state and the current state and work to reduce this gap, on relevant topics and perimeters.

This communication is done using Hoshin Kanri and A3 reports when remaining in the traditional Lean framework, or using Goal Tree if open to add some Theory of Constraints’ tools.
Both are perfectly combinable.

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What is Gemba?

Gemba is a Japanese word translated as “actual place” or “real place” that got common to the Lean community lingo and refers to “the place where value is created”.
For factory workers Gemba is the shopfloor, while for office workers Gemba is the office, for hospital staff, Gemba is hospital itself and for salesforces Gemba is sales floor.

As lean thinking is about maximizing value and avoiding waste, going to the Gemba is necessary to understand how the value streams works and assess its efficiency.

Basically going to see on Gemba is checking if:

  • the flow is smooth, no waiting
  • no useless loops delay deliveries, like filtering quality checks, rework…
  • no unnecessary Work in Progress (WIP) are piling up
  • there are no excess human motions or material transportation
  • etc.

Jim Womack about Gemba


Related: Gemba walk


What is a gemba walk?

A gemba walk is paying a visit to the “real place”, “where it happens”, the gemba. This visit is a critical one, as the visitor wants to make his mind about a problem, about the way things are done or in a broader sense, to check if it is possible to walk the talk.

In a Jan 9, 2014 industryweek blog post, Bill Wilder explains gemba as:

In short, it’s the place that matters most. It could be a crime scene: In Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart, gemba is that heart thumping under the floorboards. In sports, it’s wherever the ball is. In business, it’s the place where real value is created, the place where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. In other words, gemba is the beating heart of your organization.

How does Jim Womack define what is Gemba? / what is a Sensei?

The gemba walk is a management practice to grasp the situation before taking action. Jim Womack

Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect

John Shook, CEO of Lean Enterprise Institute in a Jun 22, 2011 industryweek blog post explains quite extensively what a gemba walk is, summarizing it in this mantra: Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect.

You may read the post here: http://www.industryweek.com/workforce/how-go-gemba?page=1
Alternate source: http://www.lean.org/shook/displayobject.cfm?o=1843

About me

In short and from my point of view, Go See is a way to check if what is done is contributing to the organization’s goal / purpose, well aligned and if the processes don’t waste resources. Deviations are opportunities to improve but may be disqualifiers in case of client’s audit. A gemba walk is a kind of Lean assessment. Such a walk can reveal much about Lean maturity, discipline, culture, performance and consistency with alleged policy, hence the question: can we walk the talk?
A gemba walk can reveal improvement opportunities, especially when seeing some kind of waste (Muda, Mura or Muri) or give important clues about a problem.

Ask why is meant to validate your assumptions and understanding when observing processes during the walk. Those who know best why something is done in this strange or efficient manner are people contributing to this process. The way of asking matters, the recommendation is not to push own opinion or conclusion but truly ask why and listen carefully to the answer. Ask why in the right way is also an inductor for people to discover the waste or uselessness of some task and letting them the opportunity to propose an improvement.

Showing respect starts with good behavior but it’s more than saying hello. Stick to the rules like wearing safety shoes and helmet where required, keep on walking where allowed, don’t touch material and parts…
Showing respect is also considering that even the most humble person involved in operations is a subject matter expert of sorts, knowing his/her job and all ins and outs far better than the gemba walker. Showing respect is giving this kind of person opportunity to express his/her analysis and ideas about actual situation and possible improvements.

Furthermore, these people are doing the work, creating value and contributing to organization’s purpose.

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Related: What is Gemba?


How lean can help shaping the future? Introduction

Lean, no doubt, is a powerful proven business management system with long track record of success stories (and probably as many failed attempts).

In 60 years, Lean made it slowly from Lean Manufacturing to Lean Thinking and Lean Management, from small improvement experiments in industrial workshops to worldwide shared Body of Knowledge.

Despite all the experience gathered and shared, the numerous good books, papers, testimonies or seminars, the application of Lean concepts is still as it was in its early days. Most of those starting Lean initiatives seek cost savings and/or performance improvement and still consider Lean as a well-furnished toolbox. They try to fix broken and poorly designed processes, bailing water faster rather than fixing the leaks.


Author Chris HOHMANN

Sadly, Lean seldom made it into management age, but keep stuck in the tool age as Jim Womack would put it, being “used” as it was in its early days, or as Mike Rother expresses it: “Lean seems stuck in the 20th Century, for instance focused almost exclusively on efficiency, and that there is a 21st-Century Lean that encompasses a wider range of human endeavor.“

It seems to me that most organizations using Lean run backwards into their future – which is risky and suboptimal enough – and do not anticipate the disruptions that lay ahead.

Innovations in technologies, societal changes and stiffer regulations for example will lead us into a near future where past experience will be only a limited help.

I think about machines able to learn from their own experience, processes able to configure and adjust themselves dynamically to respond to customers’ demands, power plants going into safe mode long before human supervisors would notice any problems, far better sales forecasts, ever smaller production batches and new ways to manufacture, using 3D printing for example.

Factories of the future will have to blend into residential areas, because of lack of space or simply because employees long commuting time is huge waste of time and energy. These factories must be energy efficient, limit all their pollution (noise, fumes, scrap…) and may be mobile device-controlled by only a handful of highly skilled personnel, few workers sharing their job with collaborative robots (cobots).

Science fiction? Not at all, no more. Search the Web for terms like “smart factories” or “industry 4.0” to get a glimpse into the future.

This brings (at least) two questions about Lean:

  1. Will lean survive the fourth industrial revolution? a topic I discuss in >this post<
  2. How Lean can help shaping the future?

This post is an introduction to a prospective thinking about these topics


Feel free to share your thoughts and comments!

Difficult definition of Lean

Did you ever face the same difficulty explaining Lean to someone who knows nothing about it?

It’s a real dilemma between giving a short yet oversimplified definition or setting up a kind of improvised conference that may disconnect your audience before it got the minimum understanding about Lean, isn’t it?

Once familiar with Lean, the question sounds strange. When knowing the basics and the jargon, a very concise definition is enough to understand what is wrapped within.

When explaining to somebody new to Lean or ignorant about it, most choose an elevator pitch style definition in order to raise interest letting the details for a later opportunity.

There are also cases when people obviously misunderstood a definition of Lean, like these guys proud about “being Lean” because they initiated 5S, and stick to their belief, surprised that you come up with something different.

Elevator pitching

Short, concise and sharp definitions of Lean are favored first because when delivered in assertive tone, they give confidence to both the speaker and the listener. In most of the cases, these pitches are teasers, catch enough interest of the listener for him to offer a further opportunity to learn more.

Alas, these concise definitions are also very often oversimplifying and while being true may be misleading. One example is : “Lean is about eliminating waste”.

Of course Lean is fighting against waste, but not because it was its goal but because it was what the workers on shop floor could do by themselves in order to contribute providing more value to customers.

If the listener only understands Lean as fighting waste, he’ll may grow the ranks of those believing it being cost cutting or doing 5S and thus miss a lot of its other potentialities.

Another example of such kind of over simplified definitions is: “Lean is about speed (and Six Sigma is about quality)”. Again, yes it’s true, when a process is freed from its major wastes the speed of flow increases, but speeding up alone is not enough because you can speed up a totally needless process without any benefit for customers.

On the other hand, as soon as the definition turns into a long sentence or several sentences, there is a risk to confuse the listener with too much information and scare him about something that sounds complicated.

A delicate balance

In my post definition of Lean, Dan Jones and Jim Womack illustrate two different approaches while defining Lean: Dan Jones uses the professorial extensive definition, Jim Womack uses the elevator pitch style, but giving a bit more explanations right after pitching, as does Mike Rother in the >related post<.

Circumstances play a role when it comes to choose the definition. Dan Jones has the opportunity to explain extensively in a 6mn video obviously in his control, while Jim Womack and Mike Rother answer interviews where usually short and straight to the point answers are preferred.

Karen Martin, answering the question in Quality Progress February 2014 issue, goes for halfway: (Lean is) “a business management system consisting of principles, practices and tools and is primarily about developing people to achieve business results.” She adds “It is hard to summarize because of its multilayered effect and complexity without oversimplifying it.”

All of these definitions are correct and convergent for initiated yet different and maybe puzzling to newbies. I haven’t a unique definition of my own. As others, I tend to adapt to the audience and the time I feel reasonable under the circumstances. Nevertheless, I usually regret short definitions, feeling I owe more than this to Lean.

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If tool age didn’t pave the way of management age

Lean’s Tool age is approximately the period between 1990 and 2006 in which western companies discovering Lean first tried to copy-paste the Toyota Production System’s tools and methods.

Using these tools and methods brought nice successes, but kept inferior to Toyota’s and seldom sustainable.

Jim Womack was among the analysts discovering the true nature of Lean is not only a rich toolbox but a way to see, consider and think, which allow the proper and efficient use of the tools.

Recognizing the importance of the human factor, largely underestimated until recently, brought the age of Lean Management into the light. Lean Management is a profound understanding of the principles, which well applied, earn better and lasting results.

It’s easy afterwards to laugh at the initial blindness, thinking it was only a matter of tools and methods. Jim Womack’s experience, role and contribution to the (Lean) community allow him a gentle mock about companies still stuck in the tool age, encouraging them to step ahead into management age, as he does in this video.

Reflecting on tool age / management age, I wonder: wasn’t experimenting the tool age first necessary?

How would western Lean pioneer companies have reacted if they would have been told that the key to their future success lies in a new thinking way and the rigorous application of five or twelve principles, disrupting dominant industrial culture?

I assume no organization was ready to engage a Lean transformation journey without prior proof of concept, thus experimenting tools and methods.

Only after experimenting the potentials and the limits of the Lean tool age, organizations got ready to consider lean management age.

Still today, latecomers to Lean go through their own tool age, an understandable and respectable path I think, allowing testing by themselves, get some assurance before acknowledging to step further into Lean transformation.

Therefore I thing if tool age didn’t come first, Lean may not have caught attention and developed the way it did.


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Definition of Lean

Dan Jones, what is lean?

Lean is about a new business model that delivers far more superior performance for customers, employees, shareholders and society at large. Initially this superior performance delivers exactly what customer wants, without any problems, delays, hassles, errors and firefighting.
Very quickly it’s also freeing up the capacity to deliver a third or more value, from existing resources without additional costs.

Jim Womack about Lean Thinking

Creating more and more value with less and less. That means less time, less space, less effort, fewer errors. It’s pretty simple. It’s all Lean is. The question is how you do that?

Related: Mike Rother’s definition of Lean

Lean failures and Jim Womack’s 3P


Chris HOHMANN – Author

Lean initiatives – I don’t dare write transformations – are credited of high failure rate. Paradoxically these failures do not seem to reduce Lean’s attractivity, probably because of reported and expected short-term gains and savings “pay” the initial effort and probably because these quick wins are the initial (sole?) target of the initiators.

For those aiming a higher target, a real ambition to install continuous and sustainable improvement, the failure is not only a failure but ironically also a waste.

Yet how many of those initiatives were bound to fail, because of ignoring Jim Womack’s 3P?

Reminder: Jim Womack’s 3P

First P: Purpose.

Without a goal, a vision to share and a distant and steady reference (often called the True North in reference to the polar star), how and toward what can all the contributors align their efforts and initiatives? Without a goal, the Lean journey has all chances to end up in a wandering.

Without a reference for alignment, local initiatives will serve only local targets, successes will be only local successes, a patchwork of local and disconnected improvements without yielding significant global gain.

I call this opportunistic approach, hoping that the sum of local improvements improves the whole, dot painting or pointillism. Pointillism is the impressionists’ painters’ technique which creates a coherent and harmonious picture by the juxtaposition color dots.

Without linkage with a strategic intent, the local initiatives may focus onto secondary activities or worth, focus on processes and activities that are scheduled to cease. What a time and resources waste this would be. Well, too often is!

Without a common goal onto which focusing the efforts, no success is granted as the opportunities to make bad (local) choices are too numerous.

Second P: Process

Lean transformation is a result of a structured and systematic approach, a process defined, chosen and/or built by the organization. Ideally this process is made out of lessons learnt, experimentation and learning through trial-and-error.

For each issue, hypotheses about causes are set and challenged, as are the possible solutions. The process will retain only:

  • Real and proven causes,
  • Robust solutions yielding expected results.

These effective and robust solutions become capitalized and shared standards.

That’s the reason why “recipes” or “copy-paste” don’t work or have limited success. What are the probabilities that someone else’s solution to their problems solve issues in another organization?

Sorry, when it is about Lean there is no such thing like silver bullet or instant pudding…

Third P: People

The best process or best technologies are worth nothing if not manned by competent and motivated people. In current competition, command-and-control management is obsolete. Decisions have to be taken fast, as close as possible to the customers or where issues arise. This supposes competent, autonomous and empowered personnel, able to take swift and wise decisions within a defined and shared framework.

Henceforth, this supposes communication and sharing of Purpose as well as existing Process.

How many Ps at the start?

As a consultant visiting many companies, how many Lean initiatives built upon 3Ps have I seen? None.

Organization’s Purpose is seldom communicated or even known in the lower levels. So in most cases, initiatives can align only onto self-defined goals and targets.

Process guidance for continuous improvement is scarce too, but the appealing Lean six sigma toolbox provides many tools and methods, used more or less wisely to solve local issues.

People are not empowered but serve as auxiliaries to champions during focused and time limited kaizen events.

From my experience, many Lean failures could be foreseen just because the initiators ignored the 3P principle.

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