The thinking roots of lean thinking


Capture d’écran 2021-02-05 à 13.50.12What are the roots of lean?

Some people have it going back to the arsenal in Venice, which I was fortunate to visit, but then again, most of industry probably comes from there.

Others see the Gilbreths, Taylor and co. as precursors of lean. I don’t. They take us to Gantt and Ford and mass production. I believe that Sakichi Toyoda had genuinely different concerns. Astonishingly, for someone born in the age of the Samurai, he went to the US three times as far as I can tell, and I’m sure he picked up many techniques, but every account tells of how uncertain the Toyodas were of what they saw there every time they went.

I personally think we see the birth of lean in the Toyota museum (where Sakichi Toyoda’s copy of Samuel Smile’s Self-Help book is exposed) – first a wood mechanical loom to handle the shuttle with one hand, then a loom where shuttles are changed automatically, then the G model that stops when the cotton thread breaks.

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When I was taught lean, my teachers seemed to be obsessed with people labor. It took me years to realize that the genuine Toyota sensei, when they showed up, were first looking at what people use: machines and materials. Fix this, and the people part is easy.

If you try to create continuous flow, you’ll find out soon enough that the main stumbling block is modifying the machines so that they can fit in sequence. THAT is the real difficulty.

Taylorism is all about adapting the human better to the process – the intention is clear and explicity, and understandable. Lean is about adapting the process to the human, this is also quite clear, and clearly distinct.

Why should any of this matter? Modern digital tools, again, create new opportunities for both. You can either push the limits of your ERPs etc. to control human behavior – monitor how long people spend on screen time, and all sorts of horrors that ARE happening as we speak. Or you can develop apps that make work easier, in the people’s own terms. It’s the same “intent” debate.

The roots question is important, because do we see lean as the offshoot of a long industrial engineering tradition of devising rigid controlled processes and then adapting human work to it? Or do we see lean as the result of a completely different insight from Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda, which is that you need to constantly improve the machines to make work easier and smoother for people.

I am not American, I have no issue in finding a distinctly non-US root to lean. On the other hand, I am fascinated by how global lean thinking truly is. Born of a Japanese outlook, it integrates early lessons from Ford and GM as well, in engineering, training from pre-war German aircraft engineering, as briliantly portrayed in Miyazaki’s touching film “The Wind Rises.”

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The lean set of ideas are beautiful. This is us against the machine. They offer a way to keep people central, and to develop ever better machines to support human work, the human way.

I feel very strongly that we should highlight and defend what is unique in these ideas, what distinguishes them from mainstream management and industrial thinking, and what unique potential they carry for the future rather than assimilate back to one version of what everyone has been doing all along. Lean thinking is thinking about how people see their work, how to help them see it differently and come up with ways to do it differently. it’s a people-centric approach.

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In the West, we have been taught to think in people-free terms: to abstract the process as if people were mechanical parts of it. To me, the true revolution of lean thinking is looking at the flow of work to wonder: why do they do it that way? What would we see if we stood in their shoes? What do they think and feel about this?

I remember when lean was a revolution – when I was a kid, it was such a wow! Now the Empire is winning again, and we have become the rebellion. The lean ideal is a human centric world. The reason we look at value in the process is to understand how the people who design and run the process see and think about it. It’s a good fight!

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