Lean is an exploration method, not a belief system


Lean Sensei Art Smalley reminded me again that there was not one method of problem solving, but many, and each depended on the type of problem you are trying to solve. Fifteen years ago, Art opened my eyes to the importance of problem solving in Toyota’s practice, when we were all focused about flow and VSM, and we wrote a paper I’m very proud of on the Thinking Production System.

Now, problem solving has taken over the Lean movement to the extent that flow thinking, stop-at-defect thinking and quality circles seem to have vanished – but how do you know which problems to solve without wanting to make work easier, flow better, or look at the detailed obstacles people should stop-and-fix in their daily work?

Problem solving is now being ritualized in A3 thinking as if religiously following the 8 steps will crack the issue. It will not. Easy problems are not problems, but lazy attitude to work. Hard problems require curiosity and courage to try new things. The method is only a scaffolding, a way to steer through the mess and confusion of real problems, but the solving remains… solving through observation, discussion and trying things one by one.

There is not one “magic bullet” method to solve all cases. There is an attitude of wanting to solve problems with others and learning all the various methods and tricks of problem solving, and Art’s site remains the best resource to see how the tools of Lean should be properly understood: http://artoflean.com/

Lean is an exploration method, and we don’t know when we start what the solution will look like, even if we have clear criteria to distinguish if it’s an acceptable solution or not. By ritualizing problem solving steps, we turn thinking into a programmatic, mechanistic process, that will not solve problems, but continuously return to the known. Explorers of course, recognize the diversity of the territory they’re crossing, and would never rely on one single method. This is why lean is so much fun, and this is why so many people get into such trouble when they reduce thinking to ritual.

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