I was asked the other day

Posted: Wednesday, 24 March 2010 @ 14:50

During a meeting with a local council, I was asked the other day "given Toyota's current situation, are you embarrassed to talk about them in your lean training?

"Fair question – but to be honest, for a very, very long time now I have declined to describe lean in the context of Toyota, so "no, it's made no difference".

When working in the public sector, I have always been bemused when witnessing an introduction that begins "Lean started in manufacturing..." - the tutor opens up an unnecessary (i.e. wasteful) debate about whether it really is applicable to public sector activity. Lean in some senses is an efficient way of managing processes (though I grant you, some people don't believe they have processes!) and as such has been around far longer than Toyota - bread makers of 3000 years ago were making and selling on the same day!

Toyota has certainly shown the West how to apply this organization-wide and formalised a philosophy, but I have also found that half of today's audiences are too young (by that I mean under 40) to remember the days of UK Manufacturing and those that do were resentful of 'yet more comparisons with the Japanese - we have some Best Practices of our own we could learn from'. So the manufacturing origins all seemed a bit irrelevant to them. It is important to acknowledge the great teachings of the Japanese Gurus, but Lean is more than one company.

We are now recognising, too, that Lean isn't everything, either - hence the increasing debates on Systems Thinking. At the end of the day Lean (and, for that matter, Six Sigma) are reductionist techniques that have their limit - take an existing process and improve it to be more efficient, effective, repeatable and predictable. The approach may well give room for creativity, but doesn't really encourage innovation, which is far more the realm of Systems Thinking. You might, for example, work hard at 'leaning out' your meetings to halve the time spent in them - but it never questions the reason for the meeting in the first place. 

I take my hat off to Toyota and to anyone who has persevered to better their performance, through better customer services. They have shown the rest of us the way and we should show them some respect.

By Stephen Walsh, Partner of Burge Hughes Walsh.