Lean principles are based on common sense and experience, but at the same time might be counter-intuitive and in contradiction to normal practices. A Lean mental journey takes time, hands-on experience and the help of experts to be successful and understand Lean concepts in-depth. A superficial analysis of Lean can create false myths, some of which are really popular today. Let’s discuss some:
- Middle managers hate Lean: Experience has taught some people that middle managers are always against Lean transitions. Therefore they must be fired upfront: FALSE. Learn more here
- Lean means abdication: Some think that Lean means letting people do whatever they want without ony type of management: FALSE. Learn more here
- Lean principles are not consistent: Some Lean principle are apparently inconsistent or in contradiction to experience after a superficial analysis. THEY ARE NOT. Learn more here
- Lean equals “Just-in-Time”: It’s a popular belief that Lean and “Just-in-TIme” are equivalent terms. FALSE. Learn more here
- Lean hates functions: Lean puts focus on the process, which is a sign for some people that Lean does not care about functions or functional knowledge. FALSE. Learn more here
- Lean kills creativity: Lean gives extraordinary importance to standards. Some people assume that standardization implies creating robot workers without ideas. FALSE. Learn more here
- PDCA myths: There several myths about PDCA out there, like “PDCA is only for engineering” or “PDCA is just do-things-and-see-what-happens”. FALSE. Learn more here
- Lean is a set of tools: Very popular, it is easy to think that Lean is just the sequential application of some tools like VSM, 5s, kanban,… FALSE. Learn more here
- Lean hates automation: Lean loves simplicity and easy to change solutions. Some may misunderstand this love for simplicity and believe that Lean hates automation. FALSE. Learn more here
It is not uncommon to find people who think that Lean hates functions (e.g. “Engineering”, “Sales”, “Marketing”, “QA”, “IT”…) This is not true. Lean recognizes functions as key elements to preserve technical knowledge and develop people, therefore they are fundamental for a company.
The problem is somewhere else. Most companies are organized by functions and, as a consequence, separate functionally the management of the process, believing that this will improve performance. The rational is that if you break a process in pieces and improve each of them as much as possible, creating big functional experts, then the process must be the best possible. Sadly, this is not true in most cases, although common sense tells you that this should work.
The problem with the previous approach is that breaking the process in pieces and optimizing each of them individually gets (in the best scenario) local optimization but a lot of waste for the process globally. Process alignment and one unique manager that owns the work end-to-end with all the functions reporting to him/her is an ideal solution (although sometimes counter-intuitive). Why?:
- One process performed by different functions or departments increases probability of handoffs, queues and quality issues (loss of information, additional sorting). This, apart from creating quality problems, generates more lead time and waste.
- One only person responsible for the process increases overall performance: one person is responsible for the full process, prioritization and decision-making are easier and information flow is better.
- From the customer perspective, they can communicate directly with one person about process issues. This makes the response to problems faster. Cross-functional training is easier to do, what creates even more flexibility and responsiveness to problems.
- Team members belong to a group who owns the process (and not just support it). This increases ownership and motivation, since work is not just “another project for another guy” but “improving my own work”.
I recommend the book “Lean Office and Service Simplified” (Drew Locher, CRC Press, 2011) for more information about using Lean and integrating functions, especially for service processes.
Functions are like a knife: very useful but dangerous if they are used wrong.
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 (https://twitter.com/DanielJonesLean/status/565844039376060417)
- 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: http://harmful.cat-v.org/standards/
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.
Sometimes it is much easier to define something saying what it is not. Remember:
Lean is NOT a set of tools
Many Lean masters and experts struggle to write a good definition of what Lean is. Some say that Lean is a “set of principles”. Others say it is “culture”. I’m not sure about the best definition, but I am certain that “just a set of tools” is a wrong one.
It’s always a good time to read about Lean principles, some information here: