Is Lean the Dark Side of TPS?


I opened a fortune cookie yesterday, which read:

“Understanding little is better than misunderstanding a lot.”   Seems to me that we Lean wannabes misunderstand a lot – maybe not everyone, but I regretfully include myself in misunderstanding-a-lot group.   There is so much to know about the Toyota Production System that one lifetime of study and trial and error is not enough for most of us.  I wonder sometimes if Lean has become the abridged version of TPS, structured as a tack-on to existing policy and practice.

 Key concepts like Kaizen, for example, are reduced to buzzwords, and means are confused with ends (a concern voiced by Shigeo Shingo four decades ago.)  After forty years of kaizening, most organizations I visit are still counting the number of events to evaluate their Lean Transformations. 

 In many cases the tools that are supposed to engage employees as agents of change, treat them instead as objects of change.  One company I worked with a couple of years ago stipulated in my contract that I could never use the word Kaizen in the presence of employees as their previous experience with it had been so unpleasant.  “We call it the BOHICA method,” one employee related to me.  [You’ll have to translate the acronym for yourself.] How can such a wonderful concept that should be developing employees become so infuriating to them?  In the name of Continuous Flow, his company had mashed together a sequence of once distant individual operations that did indeed reduce lot and process delay for the part, but at the same time created an unsafe condition for the operators. “My hands are in and out of caustic chemicals all day long in this new set-up” the operator related.  “They tell me to wear gloves, but I can’t manage the detail part of the work wearing gloves, so I have to put them on and remove them every five minutes. It’s impossible to keep the chemicals off of my hands.”   (The manager of this factory expressed frustration that shop employees were ‘not engaged.’  Small wonder.)

 Checkbox-type diagnostics based upon cursory observation of presence or absence of specific tools have also become commonplace: 

  • See kanban signage?  Check P. But the factory is scheduled by MRP.  
  • Are tools and materials in set locations?  Check P.  Are those the right locations for the persons who use them?  Who knows?
  • Are Andon lights in place?  Check P.  Are they ever used?  No. 

Factory managers, unfortunately are graded often more on appearance than reality.  Checkbox audits are tied to compensation.   

In the name of visual control, factory and office wall space is wallpapered with slick graphics and slogans.  Automated production boards provide “real-time” data (a topic for a future post), but for whom?  These trappings look good for customer tours, but they are often irrelevant to the people who do the work.  

Altogether, many so-called Lean Transformations are bodies without souls represented by physical and procedural changes that lack the “know-why.”   They parrot the language of TPS in the name of customer value, but they lack a conceptual foundation, especially ‘respect for people.’  They seek improvement, but only as ancillary programs without a guiding compass.  (Our upcoming 2013 Northeast Region Shingo Conference, True North, to be held in Hyannis, Mass., September 24-25, takes up this critical topic.) 

 Is your Lean journey guided by the Force (True North) or are you in danger of falling to the Dark Side?  Is Lean like the Dark Side at your company or is it close to true TPS?  Share a thought. 


 BTW: My next free webinar, “Tea Time with the Toast Dude”, entitled Management Kaizen (click to sign up) is coming up next Tuesday, August 13 at 3:00 p.m.   One lucky participant will win a free registration to our fall conference.   Hope you can join me. 


6 thoughts on “Is Lean the Dark Side of TPS?

  1. Robert Drescher

    Hi Bruce

    You brought up a good point today and it applies to any system to manage or improve any organization by. They can all have a dark or evil side, not just a good side to them. If they are used properly and not just as a means to an end. The danger with all of them is that they get used to address symptoms of problems, and never the true underlying problem.

    When any system is miss used they will in the end all fail and they often when miss used make things actually worse than what they were. Miss use also in the end results in making it even harder to apply anything else in the future. We need focus on solving the real problems we are facing, only by dealing with them can we end up creating real lasting improvements. No band-aid solution to the festering sore symptom, is going to treat the underlying disease that caused the sore to occur in the first place. But if we treat the underlying condition, we most often would never need the first band-aid.

  2. Brian Jardim

    I really enjoyed the webinar today Bruce. Never really thought about “management kaizen”. Great ideas.


  3. Bruce Hamilton

    Thanks, Brian. I appreciate the feedback. Hard to cover this topic in 40 minutes. Watch for my book on the topic, due out in the first quarter of 2014 — and if your in the Northeast region, please join us in Hyannis MA Sept 24-25 for the Northeast Region Shingo Prize Conference.

  4. Dave

    How we insure we do not fall to the dark side? I don’t have Yoda’s lair anywhere around here for manager / executive for Jedi training. If I only had one student to train, it’s easy. How do I (the only Yoda here!) tackle a management team as a whole? Seems like the pull of the dark side is very strong in business. How do I do it when each Jedi student (new manager) seems to move on after a short period of time? Lots of questions, have I!

  5. William Ryan

    Hi Mr. Hamilton, I signed up for your blog today and have great respect for your Lean wisdom. I look forward to sharing and learning with many others. Kindest Regards, Bill Ryan.

  6. Pingback: Happy Hollow Lean | Old Lean Dude

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