Define Lean by Behaviors, Part 1: The evolution of lean

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on April 17, 2017

This blog post is the first in a 4 part series I wrote called “Lean is about behavior”  This series address the evolution of lean, why behaviors trump tools every time, how our experiences, beliefs and behaviors affect our ability to create and sustain a lean culture, and how to articulate your lean behaviors to get the results you want.

Most management philosophies have their best day on their first day. Someone puts together a book or an idea, and that is when it is the most pure and inspired. From there, it gets picked apart lean copy 2and hijacked and distorted, until it is hardly recognizable. Lean is also unrecognizable from its beginnings, but for a different reason. The body of knowledge is always evolving, sometimes through studying Toyota’s own evolution, sometimes from the evolution of understanding from Toyota, and more and more often from evolving our own practices through experimentation.

That evolution, like real evolution, comes in fits and spurts and is often very messy. New insights are confused with final conclusions, and adopted with a vigor that suggests we finally have the answers we’re looking for. This happened for a protracted period of time with value stream mapping, following the publication of the book Learning to See. With a lack of breadth in the body of knowledge, value stream maps were seen everywhere, with several people declaring it as the only true indicator of a lean organization. Yet “learning to map” is not actually “learning to see” and many organizations didn’t improve enough, and for some not even in the right direction.

I had a General Manager tell me after his team had completed his value stream map that “if it weren’t for our customers or suppliers, we’d be in pretty good shape.” He had not learned to see, and ultimately did not improve much. A less extreme example can be seen in the popularity of Kata. For certain, it is a useful methodology, yet it is not even practiced by Toyota but is an interpretation of their thinking. Is kata the beginning, middle, and end of lean? Certainly not, but many have adopted it as such. Eventually, it will be better understood in the broader context.

In dealing with the evolution of lean, we must take ownership over our own learning and application. Nothing is final, and nothing fits all situations. We should learn from books, learn from other companies, learn from teachers, but ultimately, we must own our learning and knowledge. A common question I get is “where is lean going to go next?”, but my never-satisfying response is “where is your learning going to take you next?”  So, will lean evolution happen to us, or will our evolution happen to lean?


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