Misguided Pragmatism and Its Impact on Lean

I recently had a conversation with John W. Davis, author of Progressive Kaizen:: The Key to Gaining a Global Competitive Advantage and president of WFM Associates, and he discussed what he call "misguided pragmatism" in regard to Lean initiatives in US companies. I asked him to elaborate and here was his response:

It has been well over a decade since US industry was introduced to the Toyota Production System (TPS). During the same period, US manufacturing has gone through the greatest surge of plant closings and layoffs since the Great Depression - and the trend seems far from over. At first glance, this would serve to leave the impression that Lean Production has not been the panacea it was touted to be. But is the culprit Lean itself or how US industry typically aligns itself to the task?

That is a question that has and will continue to be explored in corporate offices and boardrooms across America. But to do the matter justice, the issue of conventional mindset and its impact simply cannot be ignored. Misguided pragmatism comes to bear when management accepts the need for change, but holds strong proclivities related to the way business has always been conducted. Coupling this with pragmatism surrounding the value of the change itself and the result will always be a restriction in the depth of Lean implementation pursued.

If the ultimate mission, assumed or otherwise, is to implement some of the tools of TPS, efforts will be applied at inserting various levels of Kanban, SMED, Poka-Yoke, etc. On the other hand, if the mission is aimed at fully and irreversibly changing the system of production (and is clearly understood as such by all concerned), strong efforts in achieving that goal can occur. The driving objective has to be more than making incremental improvement to an old and cumbersome system of production. It has to be aimed at establishing a mindset that a full and complete change to the system of production is absolutely crucial. If that one point is effectively understood, everything else will tend to fall in place.

What do you think of John's opinion? Do you feel that Lean initiatives have the tendency to merely "shine and polish" an outdated system instead of creating a transformation?


Mark Stover said...

It seems to me that Mr. Davis is exactly correct. In fact, this is nothing new. Successful implementation of lean with the idea of taking advantage of the full value a lean management system offers has always been dependent on management and senior leadership of an organization to fully commit to the idea. Why do leaders only “dip a toe in the water” of lean management? 1) It is something new and people are generally reluctant to change what they are comfortable with. 2) When times are uncertain, the enthusiasm for change is further dampened by the unwillingness to take on more perceived risk. 3) The number of layoffs and plant closings among publicly traded companies may well have something to do with the statutory impediments to lean for public companies. After all, it is illegal not to maximize shareholder value this quarter. That mentality runs completely counter to basic tenets of lean.

Some observers have suggested that this is why it is necessary to create the “burning ledge” to force adoption of new ways of thinking. But, let’s face it, fear might be a good motivator in the short run but it’s not good management practice to regularly “scare” your company into improvement.

No, it has always taken senior leadership of an organization who are committed to taking an active personal role in changing the way things are done to be successful at lean. And, oh by the way, if senior leadership is complacent about taking advantage of the opportunities lean offers because they are personally comfortable (i.e. they believe they will risk jeopardizing their own huge salaries and bonus structures) with the way things are – all you can expect is “shining and polishing an outdated system instead of creating a transformation.”

Mark Graban said...

I'd vote for the problem being "how US industry typically aligns itself to the task."

It's far easier for leaders to just have their employees dabbling with lean tools than it is to really transform the culture of an entire organization - this is true in manufacturing or healthcare.

Dean Bliss said...

Agree with both Mark and Mark. As we teach, Lean is a system, not just a bag of tools. The system includes leadership, employee engagement, and managing change, not just rearranging production lines or cleaning supply closets. There are many examples of organizations that have embraced the entire system, and unfortunately, there are many who tried out the bag of tools and gave up.