Is Lean Just A Bunch Of Tools?

When I was just starting out as a consultant, doing my own thing I was at a family wedding chatting to a friend who was asking me what I was up to.  After explaining my new business, the reply was “Oh yes Lean, but you know there are many other approaches”. 

I left the conversation there, being new to business, this was a different response and I wasn’t really prepared for it.  Over the years I continue to think about what that person said and why. Knowing the organisation he had worked for, I had a reasonable understanding of where he was coming from.

First of all, he is correct - “Lean” isn’t the only option for businesses. But only if you view it as a series of tools to be implemented across an organisation. This is what I suspect he had experienced in the company he worked in.  “Lean” was something to be rolled out, with a specific group of tools that were a ‘cookie cut’ for everyone.  The same tools to be used for different business units, the same look and feel.  It was pushed out in a similar fashion as a waterfall project.  One tool came first, then the next etc etc.

From his perspective, it was a collection of tools that for most of the situations he faced, were not fit for purpose to the challenges he faced.  This is when I completely understand why Lean has failed to take hold in organisations.  It is viewed as a project or programme of work that needs to be rolled out in a systematic way, irrespective of the nuances of individual teams.  It misses a number of significant, essential elements.

I would like to start removing the term “Lean”.  Why? Because if you have a hammer, all you see is nails. This is what I talk about continuous improvement, better business, productivity.  Change the language and change the mind set. Toyota does not use the Term Lean, and the Toyota Production System (TPS) was only documented decades after they had firmly instilled a culture of problem solving and improvement. Tools were discovered and introduced to solve a problem they faced.

The expectations were set far earlier than certain tools.  It was the development of a company culture to empower team members through “Respect of People”. Not a rollout of an A3 template (this was developed a few decades into their journey). It was the expectation that people would feel safe discovering and sharing errors, issues, problems because then they could collectively fix them.  This created a mindset of problem solving and improvement.

Out of this approach a framework was developed, one that was based on two key pillars - Continuous Improvement and Respect of People.  This is why it is a process that never really ends.  It isn’t a project that has a completed or implementation date.  There is no expiry.  Once leadership teams understand this, then the approach or methodology is less concerning as is the culture and mindset of every person in the organisation.

There are a myriad of “tools” that have evolved out of many different approaches.  Personally I don’t care where they came from as long as they are useful to teams.  DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control) has its roots in the PDSA (Plan, Do, Study Act) cycle which was created out of the Total Quality Management movement led by Dr W. Edwards Deming. You see they all contribute to each other and work to achieve one thing - supporting teams and organisations to improve. Yet this is just a tool to help guide people through an improvement activity.

Then we get to ‘Frameworks’. I have started to go back and look more into the Baldridge Excellence Framework in addition to the Total Quality Management or Deming Principles.  There is so much overlap in the principles and focus areas that all of them have.  This is certainly not a meta-analysis of all the documented frameworks, but the commonalities really go to show that all of them have the same goal - guiding teams and organisations to become a better business through active engagement in continuous improvement. Operational Excellence or Quality systems - personally it doesn’t matter what you engage with, just as long as you are doing something, using something to push your organisation forward.

I agree with the philosophy that Operational Excellence as it lifts the view beyond that of process improvement, minimising the wastes across a business. It brings in a more strategic and holistic approach to business improvement.  This does bring in customer experience, strategy & strategy deployment.  Though a Lean approach still includes these elements. This is precisely why I often use Operational Excellence to describe the work I do, because more often than not, it is more than just ‘Lean tools’. 

Everything is so intertwined. If there is a lack of focus on the customer value or experience, how can team members know what improvements are needed?  Without a clear strategic direction, again how can individuals understand how they can contribute effectively to organisational success.

It is about improvement across all aspects of the organisation.  Improve how staff engagement is done, how the business communicates and empowers individuals to make the best decisions.  It is about balancing how a business can be respectful of everyone in the organisation while setting expectations and a certain degree of discipline (without becoming a tyrannical monster!).

As you can see, the overwhelming theme is about behaviours, expectations and setting a culture of excellence.  It isn’t about becoming fluent in the use of a few tools, these help with the journey and solving specific problems. It is about leadership creating an environment where people can flourish, excel and learn.  If this is achieved then tools come in at a long second place.

Going back to my original story. If my friend’s experience was based around leadership encouraging and respecting people, I honestly believe he wouldn’t have focused and responded to Lean as a singular approach. He would not have commented on how there were many other approaches available. The discussion would have been comparing how leadership is driving excellence, irrespective of the tools and framework followed.

Lean Thinking along with many other approaches that have been described in the world of quality and excellence is more than tools.  First and foremost it is a way of thinking, behaving and collaborating with each other to create a better business.


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