We all have stories of those who try to use Lean as a tool to improve their business but fail. Those of us who have experienced the true power of Lean understand that it is more than that.
Lean is not about the tools it’s how they are applied. A large number of organizations have failed to produce the desired results from the direct and prescriptive application of Lean tools. The tools themselves have been proven to work in many situations. The difference must then be in how the tools were applied, their appropriateness, but not the tools themselves.
Improvement methods and tools can be used in all industries. There is not one right tool for all problems. Rather, the right tool for each job is based on the nature of the problem to be solved. A sage once said “To a hammer, all problems look like a nail.”
There are thousands of Lean tools, because each problem requires its own unique tool to help solve it. However, tools do not solve problems but rather people do. People are needed to apply tools. Basically, leaders have to learn to think differently and see their customers and business differently, that’s people development, not tools development.
Improvement is not about using a set of tools and techniques. Improvement is not going through the motions of organizing improvement teams and training people. Improvement is a result, so it can only be claimed after there has been a beneficial change in an organization’s performance.
One of the most common and most difficult to eradicate beliefs is that “Lean” is just a bunch of analytical tools and methods. By knowing and applying them, organizations often believe they will automatically — and forever more — increase their profitability. If this were the case, why are so many companies, institutions and agencies that have applied Lean tools not experiencing sustainable differences? Why is it that in many instances organizations, once started down the road of Continuous Improvement (with varying degrees of success for sure), break away and refocus on other initiatives the moment a new CEO or plant supervisor comes onboard? Are the tools not working? Is it just another consultant’s ruse, where the theory sounds great but doesn’t work in real life? Or, are the means and methods not being used properly?
Toyota's view is that the main method of Lean is not the tools, but the reduction of three types of waste: muda ("non-value-adding work"), muri ("overburden"), and mura ("unevenness"), to expose problems systematically and to use the tools where the ideal cannot be achieved. From this perspective, the tools are workarounds adapted to different situations, which explains any apparent incoherence of the principles above.
Lean goes beyond the tools to challenge our way of thinking. It is about learning to see opportunities and continually improving them. Lean is a system of tools and people that work together.