Why Doesn’t Lean Work?

So proclaimed the title of the latest e-newsletter received recently from Norman Bodek. Let me say at the outset that I have tremendous respect for Norman Bodek – more than anyone else, he brought Japanese management and production techniques to North America in the 1970’s through his company, Productivity Press, and I was fortunate enough to attend the very first “lean” events he ran in North America with Japanese experts.

Many of us would agree with Norman’s newsletter title, especially if by “lean” we mean the philosophy, principles and techniques of the Toyota Production System (TPS). The thrust of Norman’s argument is that lean doesn’t work because most of the firms trying to do lean are failing, unlike Toyota, to empower their people to achieve self-reliance as true problem-solvers.

While I agree with Norman that many firms doing lean are failing to empower employees to the degree Toyota does, for me this is a symptom and not a cause.

Several reasons stand out to me. First, TPS as popularized by the lean movement is quite unlike the TPS I observe and see in Toyota facilities. Where Toyota focuses on its people and their relationships in problem solving, firms I see trying to do lean are focused on copying the tools and techniques of TPS. Secondly, the popularizers of TPS have failed to realize that TPS is a distinctive capability of Toyota’s that cannot be easily copied or replicated. Both of these issues are connected.

At its heart, TPS is based on tacit knowledge derived from Toyota’s relationship system – the system of implicit relationships which links, engages and empowers all employees within the production system. While the tools and techniques of TPS can be copied, the relationship system that underpins it cannot, and this is why there are not more Toyotas.

Distinctive capabilities are just that – distinctive. They are distinctive because they cannot be easily reproduced. If they could be easily reproduced, they would cease to be distinctive and cease to be a source of sustainable competitive advantage. You may be able to do lean, but it won’t be TPS as Toyota does it.


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