Archive | February 2015

Myth: Standards kill creativity


Standards are one of those simple things that, for some reason, are easily misused. Maybe because they are simple, some don’t take them seriously. However they are serious stuff and definitely one of the building blocks of improvement. It is common to hear some concerns about standards, these are some of the most popular:

  • Standards kill creativity: The enemy of creativity is not standardization. Standards make clear how to do a task in the best way (safe, with quality, quickly, cost-effective). All the information is available for you at one single point, to use it and to challenge it. You don’t have to waste your time and mental energy remembering how and why things are done this way, you can focus in understanding and creating. The enemy of creativity is not standardization, it is fear (
  • Standards kill flexibility: Standards put together all the available knowledge today to do a task right. Whenever an urgency comes, you don’t need to recall how to do things, everything is at your fingertips easily. You will react quicker and your chances of success are higher. Is “safe, fast and with quality” a good definition of “flexible” for you?
  • Standards kill improvement: Standards define how things must be done and create controlled conditions for improvement (see Lean DNA). Standards are probably the only way to consolidate best practices and to enable robust PDCA learning cycles. Without standards, it is almost impossible to define experiments to improve the work.
  • Standards don’t make sense in my department/ my company: Yes, we all feel unique but, if you really try, you will find out that the amount of processes that won’t benefit from standardization (due to extreme unpredictability, incredible complexity) is lower than you think. Even in those cases, some portions of the process could be standardized and will help stabilize the rest of the process.
  • Standards don’t add value: Please read the previous bullets again… 🙂

Standards are great, but don’t forget that over-standardization is as bad as under-standardization.

Picture from:

Let others pride themselves…


…about how many pages they have written; I’d rather boast about the ones I’ve read.

Jorge Luis Borges

Let’s admit it: Lean is always challenging and sometimes frustrating. The good news is that you are not alone. There are many experts out there who have taken the time to write and share their experiences, honouring the “develop people first” Lean principle. This is an absolutely personal selection of the books that have helped me the most:

  • “Lean thinking”, Womack, Jones (Introduction, General principles of Lean)
  • “Kaizen”, Imai (Introduction to Kaizen, Continuous improvement)
  • “The Toyota Way”, Liker (Introduction, General principles of Lean)
  • “Toyota Kata”, Rother (Problem solving, coaching, PDCA)
  • “The goal”, Goldratt, Cox (Introduction to the Theory of Constraints)
  • “Understanding variation”, Wheeler (Introduction to Statistical Process Control)
  • “The Lean manager”, BallĂ©, BallĂ© (Lean transformation, Lean management)
  • “Lead with respect”, BallĂ©, BallĂ© (Lean transformation, People development)
  • “Hoshin Kanri for the Lean enterprise”, Jackson (Introduction to Hoshin Kanri)
  • “Managing to learn”, Shook (The A3 management process)
  • “The new shop floor management”, Suzaki (Management practices to create a continuous improvement environment)
  • “Manager revolution!”, Hatakeyama (Fundamentals of management)
  • “It starts with one”, Black, Gregersen (Understanding organizational change)
  • “Creating a Lean culture”, Mann (Lean management)
  • “Learning to see”, Rother, Shook (Value Stream Mapping)
  • “The complete Lean Enterprise”, Keyte, Locher (Value Stream Mapping for office processes)
  • “Creating continuous flow”, Rother, Harris (Calculate and design your working areas for one piece flow)
  • “Creating level pull”, Smalley (Lean scheduling techniques)
  • “Making materials flow”, Harris, Harris, Wilson (Materials management and control)
  • “A revolution in manufacturing: The SMED system”, Shingo (SMED)
  • “Real numbers”, Cunningham, Fiume (Lean accounting)
  • “A factory of one”, Markovitz (Lean principles to help individuals improve their daily work)
  • “Lean Office and Service Simplified”, Locher (Lean tools and techniques for administrative / support processes)

Don’t miss the opportunity and read lean books and articles. Learn from others!

Myths about PDCA


PDCA is a simple and powerful way of thinking. There is, however, some misunderstanding about its use. Yesterday I participated in a training session with some students and Lean teachers about how to use PDCA. These are some of the most interesting questions we discussed at the session:

  • PDCA is for engineering: PDCA is great for solving technical problems. This does not mean that it can only be used for that. Things like “how to design a training session” or “how to create a robust communication plan” can be studied and implemented using PDCA. At the end of the day it is a structured way of establishing hypothesis and testing them.
  • The “P” phase is over when you have a project plan: “P” (Plan) does not mean “create a to-do list”. The most important part of “Plan” is to establish a hypothesis and define a goal for your experiment. It is incredible how many “so-called PDCA cycles” are begun without knowing what you want to test. Therefore the tests will probably be useless or, in the best case, will provide very limited information. If you don’t have a goal, any direction is valid.
  • The “A” phase does not look too important: “A” (Act/Adjust) provides the time to think about what you learned in your previous experiment. The “Act/Adjust” phase creates the learning cycle, links one experiment with the following one and increases dramatically the chances of success. If you don’t stop to think, you are not learning, you are just shooting in the dark.
  • PDCA is about trying things and testing if they work: Well, yes, but this is only half of the work. If you just do things and check if they work, what you get are several DC (do-check) tests, not PDCA cycles. The difference is important at least in 2 ways:
    • Do-Check skips “Plan” and jumps directly to “doing”, which is not a good strategy (see again bullet 2)
    • Do-Check skips “Act/Adjust” and does not link experiments, which, again, is not a good idea (see again bullet 3).
  • It’s so difficult to check if things have worked! This is typically a signal that the “Plan” phase is missing or has been done only partially (and remember, “no goal” means that anything is valid). Sometimes data is really difficult or even impossible to get. In that case use indirect metrics to determine success (for example, one can know if a training session has been fruitful if the number of operation errors decrease)

PDCA is a great friend for any improvement effort. Just use it with love.

Lean DNA


It is always good to remember this: Lean is not about the tools, Lean is a thinking system. The Toyota Production System and its tools (SMED, 5S, Kanban,…) have often been considered the same thing. Everybody working with lean has probably made this wrong assumption at some point, but TPS is much more.

The classic article “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System”, by Steven Spear and H. Kent Bowen (HBR, Sept 1999) helps understand that TPS greatest achievement is to create a global community of scientist who use PDCA to establish hypothesis and test them. In other words, it creates a rigorous problem solving culture. Read the full article here:

Thomas L. Jackson (Hoshin Kanri for the Lean Enterprise) has summarized it this way: “The major question in assessing [Lean] development is: To what extent has scientific PDCA thinking become part of the company’s culture?“. This idea can be articulated in 5 rules:

  • Rule 1: Standardize processes & work
    • Reduces variability
    • Improves quality & learning
    • Creates controlled conditions for improvement
  • Rule 2: Zero ambiguity
    • Customer requirements must be absolutely clear to everybody working in the value stream
  • Rule 3: Flow the process
    • Material and information move in the most direct way
  • Rule 4: Speak with data
    • Decisions taken at the lowest possible level
    • Decisions takes as close to real-time as possible
    • Decisions based in PDCA
  • Rule 5: Develop people
    • Workers who are problem solvers
    • Leaders who are teachers

The best strategy to develop Lean is to find your own way of applying Lean rules and not to simply “copy and paste” Toyota tools. Implementing tools without much thinking rarely works, creates frustration and ultimately makes everybody lose faith in continuous improvement.