Most of us know Lean, and the emphasis on removing waste to deliver higher value. What’s been largely missing in the translation of Lean from Japan to the US is the idea of respect for people as a foundation for that work. When Lean works best, it reflects the twin pillars of continuous improvement and respect for people.
Professor Yasuhiro Monden, in the 1983 publication “Toyota Production System,” wrote, “At Toyota, respect for humanity is a matter of allying human energy with meaningful, effective operations by abolishing wasteful operations. If a worker feels that his job is important and his work significant, his morale will be high; if he sees that his time is wasted on insignificant jobs, his morale will suffer as well as his work.”
Toyota is widely viewed as the founder of Lean as a production system, but Lean thinking actually originated decades earlier with a desire by the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works to be respectful of people.
Sakichi Toyoda, who founded Toyoda Loom Works in the 1920s, thought the looms were disrespectful to workers because they required people to stand and watch the machines. If a thread broke, they had to stop the machine manually and re-thread it to prevent a defective cloth product. He wanted to give his workers higher-value jobs so that he could pay them higher wages.
In conjunction with his engineer and employees, he devised a way to stop the loom automatically. This innovation was patented and licensed to European organizations, which ultimately provided him the funding to create the Toyota Motor Manufacturing organization that we know today.
UNDERSTANDING PEOPLE IS THE HEART OF LEAN
The Lean management system made famous by Toyota is based in part on tools and quality improvement methods such as just-in-time, kaizen, one-piece flow, and so on. These techniques helped spawn the “Lean manufacturing” revolution.
But tools and techniques are not secret weapon for transforming a service business. Toyota’s continued success at implementing these tools stems from a deeper business philosophy based on its understanding of people and human motivation. Its success ultimately rests on its ability to cultivate leadership, teams and culture; to devise strategy; to build supplier relationships; and to establish and maintain a learning organization.
Unfortunately, many attempts to implement Lean have been superficial. The reason is that most companies focus too heavily on tools such as 5S and just-in-time, without understanding that Lean is a system that must permeate an organization’s culture and emphasize respect for people.
The word “respect” means different things to different people, but in the context of Lean, it has a very definitive meaning: Engage and empower the people closest to the work so that they can assess the current condition, create solutions to problems and standardize what’s working.
LEAN TRAINING CHANGES A CULTURE
At my organization, we used Lean tools to help change our firm’s culture. We are a mid-sized design firm specializing in Healthcare, Labs and Education that has evolved from a traditional architecture and interior design firm into a design strategy firm focused on the built-environment.
A critical driver of our culture change is our training program, which is based on Lean principles. Since we were shooting for culture change rather than a mastery of Lean tools, we invested time into designing our training program to be both grassroots and leadership-supported.
We wanted training to feel more grassroots and be low-impact on everyone involved. We set up volunteer facilitators in such a way that even people with no Lean experience could lead the training. The basic training format included some homework, and in-office workshops that were half “Lean coffee” and half “Lean simulation.” All the facilitator had to do was send reminders, facilitate Lean coffee discussions, and select and lead a Lean simulation game. No real Lean experience required.
The meat of the sessions, and the part that had the biggest impact on culture change, was the Lean coffee format for the discussion. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Lean coffee is a self-directed discussion format where the facilitator provides a Kanban board where participants place post-it notes containing homework topics they want to talk about. The class spends four minutes per topic, followed by a vote to either extend the conversation or move to the next issue. This approach creates a common vocabulary and understanding of how Lean relates to our work.
Following the discussion, the class plays a simulation game related to the reading. Each session ends with a group consensus on a Lean challenge to implement the following week. These can be individual, project team, or whole office challenges to practice implementing our learning. To support the training, we created a “virtual big room” to track our progress and serve as a hub for the Lean challenges. It includes a discussion board with threads for each chapter’s sketches, training Kanban board, the homework, Lean glossary, and some on-boarding videos like the classic Lean burrito and a definition of Kanban.
Throughout it all, it is important to ensure that the people element is never lost in the Lean principles and training tools.