Tag Archives: enterprise excellence

Tools or Culture?

With our annual Northeast LEAN Conference just a few days away, I want to relate a personal story about the theme of this year’s conference,

The Integration of Tools & Culture:

The first two books I ever read about Lean were Zero Inventories by Robert Hall and Japanese Manufacturing Techniques by Richard Schonberger.  In 1985, these definitive academic works were among just a few sources of information about what was then referred to as Just-In-Time, or JIT for short.   As I was just starting to manage a factory at that time with inventory turns of less than one (really), these JIT “how to” books seemed like the solution to my problems.    I owe Hall and Schonberger a debt of gratitude for their early reports about technical aspects of Toyota’s incredible improvement system.  But, for me, the single most important shred of information from these academic texts was a footnote in Hall’s book that referred to a then unknown industrialist by the name of Shigeo Shingo.  Hall cited Shingo’s book, A Study of the Toyota Production System: From an Industrial Engineering Viewpoint.  This book presented the technical aspects of Lean in a context of revolutionary concepts and principles.  The original 1982 version was a crude translation from the Japanese, but reading it created a sense of excitement about a wholly new way of thinking about work.   To be sure, Shingo’s explanation of tools echoed reports from Hall and Schonberger, but as one of the key inventors of TPS, Shingo shared a deep understanding that was grounded in unique personal experience and wisdom of a creator.  While he is most often remembered for introducing technical concepts like quick changeover and mistake-proofing, Shingo’s greatest contribution to my learning was in providing an integrated image of TPS, a system that was both technical and social science – tools and culture.  One could not exist without the other.  Beyond that, he conveyed his personal struggles to overcome what he referred as “conceptual blind spots” of his clients, Toyota among them.  He gave us the Law as well as the Gospel:  Lean is an immense opportunity but equally a daunting challenge to rise above status quo thinking.  “Keep an open mind,” he reminded us.  According to Mr. Shingo, management’s #1 job was “volition,” i.e., a passionate commitment to creating an environment that favored improvement. These were lessons that supported my organization and me as we learned new tools and unlearned old concepts at the same time.

Today I’m often asked, “What do we work on first, tools or culture?”   I answer, in context of the Toyota Production System, neither has substance without the other.  They are two sides of the same coin. We need to learn them together.   Our 2017 Northeast Lean Conference is dedicated to reinforcing that message.   Lean tools are essential as means for improvement; Lean culture is essential to enable us to see beyond the status quo. If you haven’t already registered, here’s a link with more information:


Hope we see you next week in Worcester, MA for a couple of energizing, informing and inspiring days.



Across a large swath of the U.S., the winter has been especially cold, snowy and dreary this year.  So here’s a post with a link to a cheery video at the end, just to pick my spirits up – and maybe yours too.

The English language can be confounding.  For example, the word turkey is slang for “a person considered inept or undesirable” while the idiom cold turkey describes the actions of one who abruptly gives up a habit rather than through gradual change.  Finally, talking turkey means “to discuss a problem in a serious way with a real intention to solve it.”

To provide some redeeming social value, let me frame these idioms in terms that are very important to the social science of Lean.  First the turkeys:

A long, long time ago, after a short stint as a materials manager, I was promoted to vice president of manufacturing.  It was, in fact, my good fortune to enter production knowing nothing about it, lest I might have fancied myself an expert. Instead, I relied on people who were already there to help me learn.  Having begun my career in the ‘creative’ world of marketing, a block away from the factory, I had previously been given to believe that manufacturing was ‘cut and dry’; a repetitive, mindless environment.  What I soon discovered after my promotion, however, was that the production floor was filled with innovative if not spiteful employees who managed to build products despite errors in drawings and bills of material, despite malfunctioning equipment and despite a lack of respect for the irons they pulled out of the fire everyday.  When I shared my early concerns with other managers I was cautioned not to spend too much time with malcontents from the factory floor.

I was floored.  “What are these guys thinking?” I asked my welding supervisor, Lenny, as I related the malcontent story.turkey_mug

Lenny gave me wry smile and replied,  “You’re heading in the right direction. Don’t get discouraged.”  I thanked him and thought to myself, “This is different. I’m the manager and he’s coaching me.” Later in the week, I found a gift on my desk (the coffee cup at right) from an anonymous friend.  The thought and particularly the background behind it helped me through a few struggles.

Now for the idiom cold turkey.   This is a model referred to in the Lean world as “blitz kaizen” – a big, sudden change of habits.   These events are typically characterized by major layout changes.  Machines and people are moved close together to facilitate material flow and teamwork – both great objectives.  Problem is, the machines are fine as objects of improvement.  We can push them around as often as we like.  Not so much with people.  We struggle with change even when it’s self-initiated, and we really don’t like being pushed around.  We like to be the agents of change, the innovators, not the objects.  Our habits don’t change on a dime.  Gradual, continuous improvement works better for us than cold turkey.

If we want to engage “everybody everyday” we need to talk turkey to get the root cause of real problems – especially managers.  Recently during a factory tour at a potential customer, a manager proudly shared his huddle board strategy with me: “We require each department to identify and solve a problem every day”, he said, “just like your slogan “everybody everyday.”   Gazing at the huddle board I asked an employee, “How important are the problems on your huddle board?”

Her reply: “Sometimes they’re important, but one way or another we have find a problem to solve every day.”

“How’s that working for you?” I asked.

“Okay,” she responded tentatively, “but we seem to have more problems than solutions.”  Seemed like they were counting problems not solutions – not talking turkey.

Finally, the frivolous clip that was the inspiration for this idiomatic post: Talking to turkeys.  Just a reminder to myself that we all need to lighten up some times.  To all my snowbound frozen Lean friends, take heart.  Spring is less than a month away.


GBMP Event Notes:

Alert: Because of my travel schedule the next Tea Time with the Toast Dude webinar will be Monday, March 3rd from 3:00-3:40 p.m.  It’s short and it free!  The topic will be “Lean Compensation Issues.”  Please click here to register. 

NEW! GBMP is excited to announce, as a licensed affiliate of The Shingo Institute and with two certified instructors on our team, the first Discover Excellence 2-day workshop in our region this year. The program introduces Guiding Principles on which to anchor your improvement initiatives and fill the gaps in your efforts towards ideal results and enterprise excellence. Read more and register here.