Thursday, February 17, 2011

What does the word "Lean" mean to you or your Company?

As I travel around the U.S. working with various companies that make a variety of different products, I realize a common denominator throughout them. How do they define the word "lean", as well as the word "culture"? What I have realized is very interesting!

When I first started consulting I felt it was all about the "tools", and that's what companies seem to want, so of course, that's what they got. As I have matured as an instructor/consultant I, like many, I have led and learned at the same time. In my experience at Toyota, especially back when we were led by the Japanese and their questioning approach; we all as new leaders were being led but at the same time leading others, so it was bringing about the "respect for people" and developing the workforce as a team. I can't ever recall in my time at Toyota (Toyota Motor Manufacturing KY - TMMK 1988-1998), that we ever labeled what we were doing in a specific word like "Lean", nor did we really think about our daily actions as a "culture". It was just in the atomsphere. It wasn't until I left Toyota to teach others, that those words started to surface. Somehow we felt the need to give it a name, and as I've experience the last 13 years as a consultant, I feel that can have somewhat of a hindering effect.

I guess my point is many companies today misuse or even misunderstand the word "Lean". I suppose in order to practice what I teach, I too, must use a continous improvement approach to enhance my efforts to be the best instructor I can be in the minimal time I have with a specific company. In otherwords, how can I best translate my 23 years of experience in a manner of a couple of days? The Japanese call it "sharing wisdom". What I have learned is the more you call it "lean" or some word to label what you are doing, it tends to create the "add-on" feeling versus - "this is how we just do business"!

When I start my training sessions, to get a finger on the pulse, I ask each participant to define the word Lean and Culture. It's been amazing to see that a very high percentage of companies define it "only" as elimination of waste, or "do more with less" mentality. Which by definition can be a correct assessment of lean, but in my experience the KEY element they are excluding is ___________? Take a guess? How about PEOPLE--engagement, involvement, and development. To me, its the common thread I see missing in the vocabulary of companies trying to implement Lean, especially LEADERSHIP. The paradigm shift in thought that Im trying to embed in my sessions today is - #1 - Without people the tools with NEVER sustain longterm. #2. If you try to label your daily work as "lean" then it can be seen as the add-on.

What Im trying to say in a simplistic way... lead by actions. I spoke of this in a previous post go here If I lead in such a way that fosters the thinking and development of people by simply being "on the floor" and "asking the right questions", then by default many times - Lean and Culture HAPPENS, and guess what?? We don't have to call it anything but HOW WE DO BUSINESS.

Hey, its simple, its not easy!!

As Nike has said all along - Just Do It! No need to label, we surely didn't at Toyota. It was an expectation of our job, not a choice. Now go ask questions at the Gemba and involve those people!!!

Until Next time,
Tracey Richardson


  1. Great description of Lean.

    Funny, I wrote a post and discussed how you can think of your own product stages and how a customer/prospect looks at your product. Each level of economic value corresponds to a level of valuable intelligence (commodities to noise, goods to data, etc.). What I thought funny was the top rung was Wisdom as you mentioned above. When you can share and impart wisdom is when you really have transformed your company.

    Nice post Tracey!

  2. Thanks Joe... that is interesting! seems to be coming to light lately :).