Lean is a System

tmac teex lean is a system

Using a Steady Approach

Taking on a Lean initiative typically begins with the improving the manufacturing process. Those that believe they are ‘advanced’ Lean integrators may tout how their initiative reaches into their business processes. However, starting at process improvement is premature.tmac teex business excellence model

After decades of working with companies pursuing Lean initiatives, we’ve noticed that managers often don’t practice the fundamentals of scientific management. Any why would they? They are in business management. But, scientific management is really just a fancy term for management by results (vs. management by means).

The application of scientific management by managers when teaching, improving, standardizing, or problem solving is required in order to sustain any Lean initiative.
Visualize a stair step approach for any flavor of improvement. All business systems require human interaction at some level. As such, people should, and in our model do, come first. Fortunately, we now understand with great specificity what it is that the people within a continuously improving environment must be skilled at.

The Lean Triad

At its core, Lean is a system of three synergistic conditions which must be focused into a singularity – skills, governance, and tools. In order to achieve its desired effects, the organization must deftly manage three distinct subsystems. These three subsystems must be synchronized in such a way that their performance is self-perpetuating, self-correcting, and inter-reliant.

What I’m referring to as a “Lean Triad” can be compared to a successful nation whose citizens are productive, whose government has structure and statutes, and whose resources are readily available as needed. Skills, governance, and tools are then the three synergistic subsystems required for Lean performance.
The goal is “Leanness.”


There are various and sundry tools and techniques for improvement that are unambiguously explained in the Lean literature. Some of the more popular are 5s, kanban, TPS, SMED, and cellular manufacturing. Other more exotic references have names like nemawashi, jishuken, and jidoka. Whatever the case, the tools of Lean are known and have been used since Womack and Jones introduced “Lean” as a concept in the 1980’s.

As robust as these tools are, they inevitably lose their value due to inattention. For the tools to remain sustainable, the organization must have a dynamic organic continuous improvement culture. Creating such a culture depends on the other two subsystems, skills and governance.

Industry Week reports that 72% of companies having attempted a Lean initiative claim less than desirable results. The inattention to the two subsystems mentioned above is the typical reason for failure.

Lean tools are very sensitive to the management style employed within the organization. A command and control management regime is counter to the explorative nature of an organic continuous improvement culture. A ‘teaching, coaching, and instructive’ management style are much more conducive to the promotion of continuous improvement.


In materials science the aphorism, “…structure determines properties” is commonly acknowledged. The same is true of a system of governance. The structure of America’s government drives, for example, a two party vs. a parliamentary system. The separation of powers and a system of checks and balances emanates from our three branches of government. Similarly, a Lean Management System lacking value stream management is already behind before ever initiating a Lean initiative.

The ground rules under which the governing system operates are also critical features of any Lean Management System. Some of the fundamental practices include leader standard work, daily accountability and visual management. Related to visual management is the importance of using just in time and forward looking metrics. For operations, the best Lean metrics are usually derived from throughput accounting practices. Most organizations typically rely on direct cost or absorption accounting to drive performance metrics. Unfortunately, these GAAP techniques neglect a focus on flow which is of top importance to a Lean mental model.


The two vital management skills for continuous improvement are standardization and improvement. Unfortunately, these two skills are typically haphazard and nonstandard practices within most traditional organizations. Both these skills take deliberate practice and should operate the exact same way across management’s ranks.

These two skills have only recently been revealed to be foundational to a Lean initiative. Since daily improvement and standardizing skills are thinking skills, they have remained relatively unknown. Both academia and industrial trade missions have studied Japanese manufacturing techniques in general, and the Toyota Production System specifically without recognizing that these skills had been standardized and used uniformly. It’s commonly said that Toyota has been hiding this in plain sight for over 50 years.

Improvement Skill

As commonly known as kaizen is in Lean parlance, its practice has long been misunderstood. Many Lean consultants and organizations in the west have relied on kaizen events to implement Lean. The caveat is that the word “kaizen” was co-opted into a western translation that actually is the opposite of what kaizen means. Many organizations claim to practice kaizen, when in reality they are practicing what the Japanese refer to as kaikaiku. Naturally, when an organization that is on their Lean journey is asked if kaizen is practiced, the answer given is yes. In reality, the organization is practicing rapid step-function improvement as opposed to kaizen which is daily incremental improvement. True kaizen, however, can and should be practiced by using the Toyota Kata. Toyota’s improvement kata is practiced by all management for 15 minutes daily. This provides for constant attention on where the organization should be headed and results in daily improvement efforts. As a beneficial side-effect, the improvement kata not only conveys the explicit knowledge needed to make improvements, it also provides the “tacit knowledge” people within the organization need to understand how best to develop solutions.

Skill of Standardization

Organizations have traditionally done a mediocre job in standardizing operations. All too often, tasks are performed differently by different workers. The tried but ineffective response is either the development of a work instruction (i.e. standard operating procedure), or training using the buddy system. When either of those actions don’t produce results, mangers will typically throw up their hands and proclaim that all that can be done has been done. The disconnect lies between the work instruction and the poor training delivered.

There is a tried and true method, if used, that will deliver higher productivity and first run quality the first time. This method is called Training Within Industry – Job Instruction (TWI – JI). The method was developed in 1940 in preparation for the expectation of the outbreak of World War 2. Amazingly, America was able to triple industrial output in 18 months using housewives, minorities, and even minors – all of which had little to no experience in manufacturing. It is often said that TWI – JI trained Rosie the Riveter.

After the TWI service was decommissioned at the end of the war, Gen. Douglas MacArthur used the TWI courses to rebuild Japan’s industrial base. Toyota was one of the companies that fully embraced the methodology and still uses the Job Instruction training exactly as developed some 75 years ago.


It would be wise to begin any Lean initiative by preparing all levels in management for the transition from management by results (goal driven) to management by means (process driven). Each and every manager should be able to practice both kaizen (Toyota Kata) and standardization (TWI – JI) before any processes are worked on.

Once managers are prepared for the transition, the proper management structure and practices should be applied. This means developing value stream management and practicing leader standard work, daily accountability, and visual management systems.

Once the first two tasks (Skills acquisition and Lean Management System) have been accomplished, the value stream future state map can be used as a plan for both kaizen (incremental improvement) and kaikaiku (rapid improvement event) with TWI – JI as a method for standardizing (sustaining) the gains.


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