Monday, March 11, 2019

Neither Too Rigid, Nor Too Loose

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

When it comes to fundamentals like Strategy, Management System, Standardized Work, Quality in the Process and the like, it’s easy to become rigid and even doctrinaire.

After all, these are the concepts that underlie TPS, the ‘world’s most powerful production system’. In the circumstances, we’re right to be doctrinaire, aren’t we?

“We have to have four mother A3s – one each for People, Quality, Delivery and Cost! We have to have strategy A3s and dashboards for everything!

Standardized work means Content-Sequence-Timing-Expected Outcome! Quality in the Process means detect the abnormality, stop the process, fix the immediate problem and develop countermeasures for root causes!”

No doubt, you’ve heard this sort of thing too.

In fact, as we apply these timeless ideas in areas further and further from manufacturing, finesse is of the essence, and rigidity, a recipe for failure.

The further from manufacturing we get, the more important it is the we translate the principles, and not insist, “This is how did things at Toyota, or Honeywell, or Proctor & Gamble or…”

This is a major challenge for ‘Lean’ practitioners in these times of tumultuous change. Who cares if your muffler manufacturing factory has the best SMED process in the industry?

Demand for mufflers is going nowhere but down, no? But the principles underlying SMED – separate internal & external work, convert internal work to external work etc. – transcend manufacturing.

SMED principles can readily be applied to shortening changeover times in healthcare, aviation, and software design.

The same applies to any ‘Lean’ principle. Principles are eternal, countermeasures temporary.

And this reflects the deeper challenge facing the Lean movement these days.

Is ‘Lean’ a principles-based profession, or a skilled trade? The distinction is important.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I respect and admire skilled tradespeople. They’re an honorable and essential element of successful organizations.

But they’re insufficient if you want to transform an organization or an industry. For that you need principles.

Principles are harder to internalize than countermeasures. But principles are eternal, whereas countermeasures are temporary.

Which brings me to the title of this piece, which a wise old gentleman taught me many years ago. The old gentleman is gone, and I am his scarcely adequate proxy.

Neither too rigid, nor too loose, expresses reflects the subtlety and intelligence needed to apply principles in ever more complex situations.

It reflects the need to be humble and learn from quick experiments – because we don’t really know, and can’t really know what’s going on unless we study the situation.

As a colleague likes to say, “If your first hypothesis isn’t embarrassing, you’re not really trying.”

Good advice in a world where Value is often a vague shadowy thing, and changing with every new technological miracle.

Best regards,


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