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Beyond Lean

The leverage of new thinking

You may read the previous story and think, “OK, so I must design a direct and binary problem solving link between myself and my employees.” This is true, but it is just the start as our organizations are very complex and have thousands, perhaps millions, of interconnections, thousands of flows (including material, people, and  nformation), and millions of activities. It’s actually a daunting problem, and there appears to be no place to start. This is especially true for companies who have traditionally tried to design everything they do in a conference room, as many reengineering efforts have attempted. Toyota has either invented or led in the development and implementation of many tools over several generations. It started with jidoka, the initial concept came from the invention of the automatic loom that allowed the loom to stop as soon as the thread would break, allowing one worker to support 12 machines instead of just one dramatically dropping the cost of weaving. This happened in 1902 and the Toyoda family and Toyota Motor Corporation have never stopped learning. Their success comes from the successful application of ideas such as just-in-time, kanban, andon, heijunka, quality circles, single minute exchange of dies, supermarkets, and so on. This is a long list. Are they just lucky? What is the common thread that ties this all together? Their ability to adopt these ideas, whether generated internally or externally, is made possible by a drive to learn. This drive to learn means they are focused on whatever will help them move closer towards their ideal state and nothing else.

Some of these tools mentioned above have been applied with rigor inside many companies, both automotive and non-automotive manufacturing and even within non manufacturing and administrative processes. Some success is often found through the application and adoption of these tools. Two results are inevitable through this approach, however. First, companies do not reach nearly the level of success desired or come close to Toyota’s success. This leads people to either abandon their lean efforts or to search aimlessly for new ideas or programs to adopt. Second, companies do not find their lean improvements sustainable. This leads many people to conclude that lean simply doesn’t work in their industry or even conclude that it doesn’t work outside Japan.6 Both of these results can be avoided by recognizing lean not as a collection of tools but as a way of thinking across your company.

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