The one with the most tools wins!

Monday, April 17, 2017

AME Author, Lean Champion, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Author and Shingo Prize Winner,

I recently saw a blog that described 32 lean tools. I thought, “Wow, 32 tools! That is a lot more than I know.” What tools am I lacking? Which tools are missing from my lean toolbox? I did not read the article.

Tools must be easy to promote and sell. Many companies or consultants offer tools or tool training, and the tool-related workshops and presentations at conferences fill up first. People love new tools. I think many lean practitioners believe finding the right tool is the secret to solving a problem. Some even wait until they find the right tool before trying to solve a problem. It works for a craftsmen, why would it not work for the lean practitioner?

I kind of got sucked into the same thinking about 12 years ago when I started my lean education. I found myself learning value-steam mapping, 5S, gemba walks, huddles, visual planning, kanbans, and many other tools. Value-stream maps soon decorated the walls of conference rooms. I wandered the halls looking for someone — anyone — to look at my A3 forms, dutifully filled out. After an initial huddle, my colleagues stopped coming. The kanban cards I distributed were returned to my own office!

I went back to my lean books to find out what I had missed. I realized I had no idea what to do with the tools I had learned. I did not even know why and where to apply them, and the more I read about them the more confused I became. But I had learned something in engineering school: try to understand why things happen and why things work or do not work. Engineering thinking is based on evidence and scientific principles. Can the same approach work for processes and lean thinking? Guess what: It does.

I soon discovered lean principles supported by science and began to understand them. As I understood them, it became really easy to understand how and where they apply. For example, after I understood Little’s law and the principles of flow, it became obvious that there is an optimum amount of WIP in a process that assures the fastest cycle times and optimum use of resources. And after we had established a process based on flow, the kanban cards were not returned to me any more.

Understanding lean principles — not merely the tools that support them — reinvigorated stalled lean initiatives in my organization. We had made many attempts at Goodyear to introduce A3s. We had designed a beautiful form and trained people how to fill it out. Even directors requested them — for the next week’s staff meeting. No A3 effort stuck, however, until we first learned about the underlying principles of problem solving: understanding the real problem in great detail, identifying the root causes, looking for multiple countermeasures, applying sound PDCA (plan/do/check/adjust), and so on.

Today we educate all employees about lean — but we teach the principles. Once people understand the principles, we teach them the tools on a just-in-time basis. They reach a point where they recognize the need for a tool, and already know how to leverage it immediately and in the future. We also tell them that the one with the best knowledge of the principles and their application wins.