Ah, but we can do that as well! We can see the solution in front of our eyes – we think – and we can just copy that what we have seen! Back in our own organization we’re ready to go and clean up our mess, change our lay out, paint some nicely colored lines on the floor, put some whiteboards up, put some markings on our machines, and install some of these fancy heijunka-boards and kanban-launchers, and off we go! Easy! Or is it really? After a while it seems that our results are lagging behind what management expected from all this Lean stuff. And that it doesn’t “feel” the way it felt while we were visiting that other company. It is because in fact, that what you can see, the visual, isn’t the solution. It’s only a symptom…
Copying: the Quick and Dirty Way Towards Lean…
Many organizations are looking for the silver bullet that must be hidden somewhere in this Lean philosophy. “There must be a shortcut to the results that Lean promises. It’s just a matter of visiting one of these well-known Lean success companies around to find out what it is all about”. Easy said, easy done. In the meantime, there are more and more companies that you can go visit and that are willing to show you around their facility.
So off we go to our Lean company. And all of our expectations are met: at first glance, it’s clean, 5S has apparently been deployed, we see a lot of colorful lines all over the facility, we see some whiteboards with data, personnel attendance records on the walls, some kanban cards and visual planning boards and some fancy LCD-screens with flashing data.
Satisfied with all the experience we’ve gained during our afternoon visit, we return to our own facility. What we have seen did not seem too difficult in fact. So when returning to our own jobs, we quickly decide to copy what we have seen and implement the same stuff in our own operations. Within a few weeks, up to some months for a few aspects, we have got most of the stuff we’ve seen up and running ourselves. We can be proud of what we have accomplished in such short time frame. Becoming Lean in fact isn’t that difficult after all!
But after another few weeks it seems that the results of our hard work don’t really match what we had expected in the beginning. Well, how can that be?! We copied most of what we saw in our own operations, so what went wrong?
The Visual isn’t the Solution
Unfortunately, I still often see the above scenario happening. One of the reasons, in my opinion, is that those aspects you can actually see in fact aren’t the solution.
First of all, most still only check out the technical, physical, if you want “hard” aspects of Lean during these visits. The things you can easily spot such as machines, lay out, means, systems, etc. In general, there’s a lot less attention for what the people working there actually think and do on the basis thereof. Of course, the less tangible aspects such as the rhythmic management (learning) cycles happening continuously, hourly, by shift, daily, weekly, monthly, annually, etc. are also difficult to capture during a visit of most probably only a few hours. Besides, I often notice that focus is lacking during many of these visits. We often made use of the term of wasteful “industrial tourism” in these cases. As opposed to what we started calling “seeing with a mission”. What are your goals while visiting other facilities or departments? What is it you want to learn? Our regular visits to Japan were called “school” for a reason…
But even when you are going to visit other organizations, other sites or other teams, it still is treacherous to only look at the visual aspects, at the observable only. The visual aspect isn’t the solution that you think it is! The visual aspect in Lean is a symptom or a partial expression of Lean and often nothing more (or less) than a control item, a means of detection based upon which you can evaluate the current state versus the standard. It requires more than just seeing the visuals of Lean to grasp de underlying agreements between team members and teams (i.e., standards) of which they think that they will lead to success.
Furthermore, the underlying (only partially visible) standard is an agreement relating to this specific organization to help eliminate or quickly detect a specific problem in their process. But that isn’t necessarily the problem that your team is up against. Now, people that know me will know that I am the last one to say that every organization is different, and principles actually are principles, but at this level of detail we should be cautious not unthinkingly copying the symptoms of a solution related to another underlying problem than ours!
“Seeing with a Mission”
The above shows that there are at least three potential problems in copying the visual aspects of Lean: (1) it often only concerns only the “hard”, technical aspects of Lean, (2) the visuals are only symptoms, and (3) the underlying problem might be a different one than yours.
So at least be cautious when tempted to visit a Lean organization. Or while visiting other sites or teams within your own organization. Go with a mission, specify your research questions, distribute these questions among the visiting team, go look for the underlying problems, the chosen solutions and try to distil the principles that clarifies “the why” of the solution. Especially this last aspect will enable you and your team to take the right steps in your own organization, whereby the things that you witnessed can serve as an illustration of the principles you uncovered and as an inspiration for your team. Ready for your next visit?