A tool by any other name...

Lean is not just methods, tools, activities, or principles, it is all these areas interconnected, therefore an Operations Strategy

A tool by any other name...

by Rebecca Kennedy, 12 July 2017

What’s in a name? or in this case a definition?

Following on from my first Blog (published 21 April 2017) where I discussed the different reactions to Lean I’ve been experiencing, I wanted to start diving into what Lean is and is not.  

My current go to reference book ‘This is Lean – Resolving the Efficiency Paradox’ by Niklas Modig & Par Ahlstrom raises a very important point:  How can we openly discuss our experiences with Lean when we are all approaching the topic from different definitions / understandings?

You may be surprised by this comment and think “surely Lean only has one definition”. Well you’re partially right, the issue actually stems from the different levels of definition.

In chapter 7 Modig and Ahlstrom endeavour to answer – What Lean is Not by looking at the different levels of abstraction / hierarchy of the Lean definitions.

Let’s use an example. There is a local business networking event, three participants start a discussion, each person has a different experience level of Lean:

  1. Joe works for a Website Design Company, when he talks about Lean his experience and understanding is that Lean is a Philosophy / Culture / Way of Thinking – High Level Definition;
  2. Sarah works for a Law Firm, when she discusses Lean she’s referring to it as a Quality / Improvement System – Medium Level Definition; and
  3. Tina works for a Bank, she believes Lean is a method / tool specifically 5s (a visual management system) – Low Level Definition.

Joe mentions that his company is running an Intro to Lean Workshop next week; he’s heard about Toyota having a Lean culture but not much else and was wondering if Sarah and Tina had any experience as he’s not sure how a Toyota Car Company culture would work in an office environment.

Sarah says “my company did a large exercise to look at where we were losing time then kicked off a number of improvement projects to address them, things seem to be happening”.

Tina jumps in and says they’ve used Lean in her office, “We’ve done that, they put shadow templates in our stationary cupboard so we knew where to get things from and put them back, like the staplers that always went walk about. It worked for a while but everyone stopped using it and the cupboards a mess again.”

Although each of them is technically correct in their experience of what Lean is, swapping between the levels of definition without context can cause great confusion. This goes on to impact people’s experience and therefore their thoughts on Lean. Ultimately not doing justice to Lean and the potential it has.

The diagram below is a new one we (CTPM) introduced this year based on the model developed by Modig and Ahlstrom in their book ‘This is Lean – Resolving the Efficiency Paradox’, to help people better understand all the levels of Australasian TPM & Lean and how they fit together.

Key Components of Australasian TPM Lean

VALUES are the core of an organisations culture. They define how employees should behave in all situations.

PRINCIPLES define how an organisation should think i.e. how to make decisions and what to prioritise. To realise values an organisation must be guided by their set of principles.

METHODS define how an organisation should do different tasks to actualise the principles in different situations but in the best way possible.

TOOLS are what an organisation must have to execute the methods.

ACTIVITIES & FOCUS are what needs to be done to execute & complete the methods.

As you can see above Lean is not just methods, tools and activities i.e. the low level, nor is it just principles i.e. the high level. It is all of the above areas interconnected. Therefore when we refer to Lean we are referring to it as all of the above which we call an Operations Strategy used to achieve specific goals.

To recap, if Lean is only defined at a low level i.e. tools and activities, then it can be misunderstood and people cannot see how the methods and tools can be used in their environment. Whereas the higher level of definition as an Operations Strategy means it has wider potential and ability to be tailored to suit any environment.

If you would like to learn more about CTPM – The Centre for Australasian TPM & Lean, and our approach to Business Improvement in Services, contact CTPM at ctpm@ctpm.org.au.