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Aug 9 / richard durnall

Welcome to ‘The Lean Tool Age’

In Lean Ops we made a mistake. We looked at what we thought Lean organisations were doing, we read the books and we assumed that Lean was all about applying the things that we saw and read. We spent time introducing pull systems, kanban processes and just-in-time and for a period we got improved results. We never got the breakthrough results we hoped for and when we turned our backs things went back to the way they had always been. Why?

When we took a second look we realised our mistake. There is a deeper, less tangible philosophy embeded within Lean that focuses on people, the systems we place them in and the behaviours these systems encourage. It’s more difficult to understand than the tools and practices and it’s much, much harder to introduce and encourage.

One of my Lean mentors introduced me to an article a number of years ago to try to help me understand this deeper issue. The article is a seminal Harvard Business Review piece by Ralph Stayer. It’s called ‘How I Learned to Let my Workers Lead’. It doesn’t mention the term Lean once and you’ll find nothing about A3’s or single piece flow, yet to my mind it is the single most complete document I’ve come across for distilling what Lean is really all about at its core.

Deming understood that as leaders and managers our roles are to create the right systems for our people. I think he put it best when he said “A bad process will beat a good person every time”. The Stayer article explains the leap of faith we have to take as leaders to create new systems where the people can determine the process.

In Lean Ops we missed this deeper philosophy. We focussed on the tools and when they didn’t work we just tried harder to enforce the application of the tools. The irony! We went through ‘The Tool Age’ and emerged the other side with a new understanding of the challenge we faced.

So what? Well, I’m at Agile 2008 in Toronto at the moment and one of the hot topics is Lean. Fantastic! I think this is completely the right direction for IT to go. The challenge? A lot of the presentations are focussed on tools and practices like kanban systems, A3 reports and just-in-time. We’re going to apply them and get short term results but there won’t be the breakthrough we’re looking for. And then we have a choice. We can try harder doing the same things, we can abandon Lean and write it off as a failure in IT or we can continue on our learning journey. I hope that we’re on a journey to the point where we realise that we have to change the structure of our IT divisions, the way we incentivise our people and the things we measure. But we’re not there yet.

Welcome to The Tool Age. Where do we go next?


Leave a comment
  1. keith ray / Aug 10 2008

    Thanks for pointing your readers to such a great article!

  2. Jeff Santini / Aug 11 2008

    the link you provided is great. Like reading The Goal but in 1/2 hour and without all the painful(to read) attempt to put in a novel form.

    The post was right on the money too.

  3. richard durnall / Aug 13 2008

    I’m glad you got some value from it – it’s hard a huge impact on the way I think. I try and read it once every 6 months as a refresher…

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