Monday, June 26, 2017

Lean is a System

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

The eternal verities are just that, and we need to keep returning to them.

Lean methods have such an appealing clarity and intuitiveness that we can easily lose sight of the most important thing:

They’re just tools – methods, drills, routines that are part of a broader system and set of principles.

And that system, which some people call the Toyota Production System (TPS), helps us continually address the most important questions of management:

  • What is our Purpose?
  • What should be happening?
  • What is actually happening?
  • How do we get back to a good condition?
  • What is our ideal condition?
  • What will we do next to get closer to our ideal condition?

These questions are a fractal, of course, and apply at all levels from the front line (Level 1) on up.

And as parts of a system, Lean methods must express the core principles, and connect to:
  • Purpose, and
  • One another

If a given method, say 5S, does not connect to our over-arching Purpose, by helping to make problems visible, for example, why are we doing it?

And a given method like 5S only makes lasting sense and provides lasting value if it is connected to other methods, which in turn are connected to Purpose.

So 5S is connected to Standardized Work, which is connected to building quality into the process, which is essential if we are to flow our products & services to our customers, which is essential to meeting our Purpose.

You get the idea. Sorry to belabor the point, but losing sight of our core principles and purpose is a clear & present danger, perhaps the biggest one facing the ‘Lean movement’.

If we navigate according to our principles & purpose, we can change the world.

If not, we’ll perhaps deliver some helpful cost savings, and while being relegated to the dusty & damp management tool shed.

Best regards,


Monday, June 12, 2017

On Big Data

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Big data is all the rage these days. Big consulting houses and IT touts assure us that the next big breakthrough is just around the corner.

And all we need is self-appointed experts and super computers that crunch through all our ‘data’ and make sense of everything for us.

Don’t’ want to be misunderstood. There is a place for experts and for super computers, and the wise are always open to new thinking.

But do we really believe that Big Data is going to solve our problems?

Do we even understand our ‘small data’? In other words, do we understand our current condition? Stuff like:

  • Purpose
  • Core metrics
    • Targets versus Actual
    • Trends & patterns
  • Top 3 acute problems
  • Top 3 chronic problems
  • Degree of engagement of our teams
  • Problem solving capability of our teams
  • Overall capability of our team members
  • Capability of our machines & equipment
  • Capability of our processes

And these questions, of course, apply at each level of our management system from Level 1 – front line on up.

Comparatively few organizations can answer these questions in the affirmative.

Truth be told, many (most?) organizations flounder about in the fog of Big Company Disease [The Remedy], no?

It’s not incompetence or ill will. It is the nature of large organizations, organisms that are still comparative newcomers to the human scene.

It takes great skill and tenacity to disperse the fog, and keep it from seeping back in. Companies that thereby understand their ‘small data’ are akin to the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

So before we grasp at the straws of Big Data, let’s build our management systems so we can understand our ‘small data’ – like the world’s best organizations do.



Monday, May 29, 2017

What Makes a Great Sensei?

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

My last blog (“Beware Prizes, Belts & Self-Appointed Experts”), begs the above question.

What indeed is a sensei? You’ll have heard the most common definitions: teacher, mentor, ‘one who has gone before’, and these are all fine.

I’d like to illuminate elements of the sensei mindset, at least in so far as I’ve observed & understood.

Humility is perhaps its most important element, a sense of the vastness of reality, and the finite nature of human experience. How can anybody who understands this be full of themselves?

W. Edwards Deming was famous for excoriating bozo executives, and equally famous for his kindness and sensitivity to front line workers. He would ask endless questions to understand why an associate was doing the job in a given way, trying to understand the biggest problems they faced and how they were adapting. “You’re doing such a good job,” Deming would say, before going back to the C-suite to tear strips of skin off the executives. “You own the system. Do you have any idea what it is doing to your people?”

Beginner’s mind (shoshin, in Japanese) is another common quality – a engaging freshness of thinking, and curiosity. Great senseis respond to new problems or challenges with an almost child-like quality, as if seeing them for the first time.

Last time I described Mr. Hayashi, our Toyota OMCD sensei, in his 70’s standing by the Final Assembly line of our old Toyota factory, sketching out countermeasures to problems that he’d been working on for decades.

‘Mind with no mind’ (mushin) – a state achieved when a person's mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego. The absence of discursive thought and judgment, frees you up so you can react without hesitation.

Great senseis, therefore, are not afraid of being wrong or looking foolish. Well into his 80’s, George Kissell, the legendary St. Louis Cardinals minor league manager, scout, coach and instructor would spend hours fielding ground balls with young minor leaguers.

Longevity fueled by an inner fire, is another trait common to the best senseis. Deming, Kissell, Joe Juran, Shigeo Shingo, Peter Drucker all lived very long productive lives.

George Kissell passed at the age of 88 – of a traffic accident, sadly. Had fate been kinder, he’d have been teaching baseball fundamentals well into his 90’s.

Great senseis are informed, attuned, inspired by the eternal verities. They hear, see, feel things the rest of us miss. There’s a lightness, a freshness about them. You feel good in their presence.

And when they pass, they leave empty spaces where they used to stand.

Best regards,


Monday, May 15, 2017

Beware Prizes, Belts & Self-appointed Experts

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Sir Isaac Newton

My corresponding tweet has had a lively time – thanks. Seems like you all are as tired of this as I am.

Indeed, who cares if Joe Schmoe is a Master Lean Sensei (MLS) and a Super-Duper Advanced Black Belt (SDABB)?

Or if Questionable Financial has received the Mortimer Snerd Prize for RGQ (Really Great Quality)?

Ever known a chest-thumper who is also a sensei? What happens to chest-thumping companies? Jim Collins has written a fine book about it: How the Mighty Fall.

What’s the most common quality of all great senseis – and great companies?

Humility, no? A deep understanding that the world is much bigger than we are, so well expressed by Sir Isaac.

Don’t want to be misunderstood. Building a career sometimes entails achieving certain professional degrees and certifications.

And plenty of fine organizations have committed themselves to achieving some prize or other.

The best ones recognize that the prize or certificate is nothing more than a kick-start, a proxy for the hard work of building a management system & getting results.

And some awards are worth pursuing, but these are almost always based are on detailed feedback from the customer.

At TMMC, our old Toyota Cambridge site, we were lucky enough to have Mr. Hayashi, a venerable sensei from Operations Management Consulting Division (OMCD).

Hayashi-san and his small team would visit a few times per year. He’d give us homework, check on previous homework, and provide very tough feedback, (often very funny, in retrospect,).

(“You have learned nothing since my last visit, Pascal-san…”)

I remember one time, Hayashi-san standing by himself by the Final Assembly line, taking notes. I asked the great sensei how his visit was going.

He smiled, “After many years, I finally understand this important assembly problem.” He went on to explain in great depth to this lowly, not-so-bright manager.

Always practicing, always teaching.

Best regards,