Lean on me

Posted on 22 Oct 2012 by Tim Brown

Why do so many lean programmes fail? Roberto Priolo, editor of Lean Management Journal, brings TM readers up to speed with the publication’s international explorations and gives an insight into the next edition.

In August I attended a summit organised in São Paulo by the Lean Institute Brazil. I was impressed by the quality of the case studies presented, ranging from Embraer to Brasil Foods (you can read about some of the best Brazilian companies in the October issue of Lean Management Journal).

During the summit I had the chance to listen to keynotes from some great lean thinkers, from Jim Womack to Mike Rother and a recurring theme seemed to be that Toyota does not necessarily represent the Holy Grail of lean anymore.

While everybody acknowledged the pioneering contribution Toyota gave to the business community, there was a sense that many of the speakers thought it was time to treasure some lessons but, essentially, move on.

Toyota has certainly had its share of problems over the past couple of years, with the infamous recall crisis first and the disastrous aftermath of the tsunami later. These events, hugely reported on by the media, showed that no company is untouchable.

It became clear that Toyota didn’t have a clear idea of its supply chain past Tier 1. When parts were needed and suppliers couldn’t deliver after the tsunami, production had to be shut down.

Toyota never spoke of itself as the master of lean, that’s what we have made of it because of its unrivalled success spanning decades. Until 2011 Toyota had a 50 year record of profitability and its rise from obscurity to snatch the crown of world number one car manufacturer from GM rightly deserves admiration. It is unsurprising that many have fallen into the trap of simply copying what Toyotas actions, with the conviction that it would lead to the same extraordinary results for their company.

And yet, even in its failure Toyota has issued a lesson we would all do well to learn from: that responding to a massive screw-up (in the parlance of our times) takes humility and a drive to do better – read the interview to Toyota Europe’s Mark Adams in the September issue of LMJ to understand more about how this lesson was realised.

Failure is common in lean initiatives, so much so that it forms the focus for the November issue of LMJ. We will ask what can be done to recover after a lean implementation has gone south and identify what was missing to allow the failure in the first place.

Perhaps you have a bunch of ideas, and you want to test them “virtually” – without investing large amounts of valuable time and resources. LMJs October interview with SIMUL8 shows that the tools exist to allow you this luxury.

This piece also highlights that a clear idea of the current and future states of a company is fundamental. A good dose of realism is also needed: we can’t expect to achieve turnaround results without the mindset or the right investment in developing, recruiting and retaining people who can make lean theory a reality.

While, we are going to analyse failure in the November issue, have no fear – it won’t be all doom and gloom. We’ll also look at some of the best examples of lean implementation in France, as well as provide our readers with the mix of commentary, analysis and reviews they are used to.

If you are interested in subscribing to Lean Management Journal, you can email me on [email protected] or call me at 0044 (0)207 401 6033.