Jeffry Liker and Mike Rother have an interesting article entitled Why Lean Programs Fail. By “lean”, they mean the way of manufacturing developed by Toyota and others, and described in the classic book, The Machine That Changed the World. Lean is a change in management paradigm that was as monumental as the shift from craft-style to mass production.
The focus of lean is on providing the customer with more value sooner. Lean can be seen as a subset of radical management in the context of manufacturing, just as Scrum and Agile can be seen as subsets of radical management in the context of software development.
Lean is more than new processes
Although the studies described in The Machine That Changed the World showed that lean was a significantly more efficient and effective way to run a manufacturing plant, a large survey conducted by Industry Week in 2007 found that only 2 percent of companies that have a lean program achieved their anticipated results. More recently, the Shingo Prize committee, which gives awards for excellence in lean manufacturing, went back to past winners and found that many had not sustained their progress after winning the award.
Why is implementing lean so difficult?
Liker and Rother says that when you look at a Toyota plant, you see many good ideas, but they are not the standardized and implemented in all Toyota plants in the exactly same way. The experts don’t tell the plants what to do and audit them to see if they are following the best practices.
A new culture of learning
Instead what you see is the result of many small steps, some of which were discarded and others embraced. It was the result of many cycles of plan-do-check-act (PDCA). As result, practices are different throughout Toyota because different organizations are on different learning cycles.
The management task is not to impart a routine for doing work, but rather to inspire new work habits and mindsets for continually improving the work. That inspiration is missing in organizations that use top-down management objectives, so managers have no choice but to blindly start cutting things.
In one organization, Liker observed that the chief operating officer holding plant managers accountable for running a certain number learning events to achieve a certain level of productivity improvement. It became slash-and-burn lean with no sustainability and no continuous improvement, i.e., old school, outcome focused, carrot and stick motivation.
Continuous improvement is a way to achieve things that you don't necessarily know how you are going to achieve. A mentor does this by giving those learning a challenge. Even if the mentor has a notion of how the challenge might be achieved, he or she does not share it with the learners. The task is to lead the learners into developing good habits for working through problems, via intensive questioning-based coaching on this problem.
It is fundamentally about a way of thinking and acting that is very different from the top-down bureaucracy that is still pervasive in large organizations and educational systems today.
A new culture of learning in education
In their exciting new book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown show how the same issues play out in the education system. The current test-driven system, where the teachers always have "the right answers" and the object of teaching is to impart these right answers to the students, doesn't equip for the jobs that lie ahead of them, where they will have to change careers a number of times during their life. Education becomes, not the acquisition of a fixed set of knowledge and skills, but rather creating an environment that facilitates learning and instills the capacity and the passion to go on learning throughout life.
To learn more
To learn more about creating a culture of continuous learning, read Toyota Culture: The Heart and Soul of the Toyota Way by Jeffery Liker and Michael Hoseus and A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown.
For a comprehensive review of the principles and practices involved in reinventing management to elicit constant learning and continuous innovation, read my book: The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century.