The Cause of Lean Failure

I've been thinking a lot lately about why the spirit of continuous improvement dies. Notice I didn't say Lean initiative, or Six Sigma program. What I'm talking about is why, when asked if Lean is successful in a your plant, the response is usually, "no?"

There may be a lesson learned in TWI. After the war ended, the TWI Service was decommissioned. A few companies carried on the TWI programs in their plants. If most had carried them on, we would see evidence of that today. In fact, only one company today yields evidence that TWI has been part of their culture for nearly sixty years: Toyota. As regular readers of the blog may know, the government of Japan set up a similar TWI program as a service to business. An American consultant trained them in TWI in 1950-51.

Some say that in the U.S., TWI died for several reasons. One, since the service was decommissioned along with its free services, so did the interest in the program. Although interest waned at a national scale, many former employees of the TWI service started their own consulting firms around the country. Recall that Lowell Mellon, the TWI wartime representative for Cleveland, had hundreds of clients after the war. He provided the J-skill training in 1950-51 and was called back to Japan to deliver Problem Solving training to JITA in 1964. The TWI Foundation, was a non-profit consortia that continued the programs through the 1970's. In short, the program didn't die, but it sure did suffer as time went on.

Another reason explaining the death of TWI is that companies had no incentive or the culture capable of adopting TWI principles. In fact, this level of resistance is a common excuse of change agents when trying to create change in any organization. It isn't the consultants fault, or the leaders fault, it is the people. This is a similar argument when lean is not adopted by a group. In fact, American culture is often to blame.

This reasoning doesn't stand a basic litmus test: if American companies wouldn't use TWI after the war, bringing on the premature death of TWI, then why would the Japanese blindly accept the program? Further more, many companies in the U.S. did use JI for many years after the war, such as Kodak, Union Carbide and others. Even if we assume that the Japanese were obligated to indoctrinate business in TWI, under order from the occupation forces, how does that explain the lasting effects of TWI on Japan? Wouldn't the level of resistance have been greater if you were told to do something you may not want to do? To this day, the Japanese authorities still offer TWI J-skills for supervisors, nearly sixty years after they were trained. It is still offered in the five day, two hour format. In reality, not all companies use TWI, a very similar situation to the U.S. scene. There are two known Japanese companies that use JI today: Toyota and Canon. There are more known U.S. companies using JI today than those known in Japan. Americans are perfectly capable of adopting principles, yet we continue to be extremely hard on ourselves.

No, if the program worked during the war, and it worked in a post war Japan, it could certainly be easily adapted to peacetime production. What then is the reason for the slow demise?

I have my thoughts on socio-political events at the time which may have discouraged the level of training TWI aimed to provide, but have yet to vet those ideas.

In combination with those ideas, there is a much bigger factor. Mellon had hundreds of clients in Cleveland, he spread national programs to Japan and Indonesia. Likewise, the TWIF spread the program to dozens of countries and domestic companies. The program didn't die, but it did fade away. The most likely reason is twofold in my humble opinion:

1) Standardization. People don't like it because of our human nature that yearns for individual freedom, yet we crave it for making our collective lives easier. So we struggle with the concept of standardization. TWI (and Lean) is all about the Standardize/Improvement cycle. How many future leaders are being practically taught how to work in this cycle in their undergrad business or MBA program? I don't know how else to say this.

2) Lack of Self Discipline. Again, something we know we need, but we struggle to stay in one place and master one thing before moving on to the next. Unfortunately, we are taught to move quickly from one achievement to the next without following up and monitoring the process. This behavior spreads like a cancer.

The problem then, is leadership. TWI is a simple proven concept that would be difficult to improve upon, yet it provides the most powerful standardization/improvement cycle skill set I have seen to date. Despite the proven results, old and new leaders alike think they can dream something up that is better for the sake of the company culture, policy, flexibility, inability to understand the program, etc. There are many stories in the TWI archives how this, "I can do it better" bastardization of the program ruined many a company's' TWI program.

The paradox, which hardly anyone can see on day one of training, is that TWI (and Lean) is extremely flexible and adaptable to most any situation. In combination with this urgent need that is difficult for the masses to grasp, we really struggle with the level of patience and perseverance needed to master these types of skills.

In learning about the TWI program, many parallels can be drawn to Lean. Lean has been around, in the mainstream, for a good twenty years now in some form or another. It is starting to lose its luster. Why? Not because of the Lean concept itself, Rather, the problem is us. We are getting bored with it, or more specifically it isn't giving us the results we were promised.

Lean isn't flashy. It can sometimes be excruciatingly tedious as we watch small improvements add up over long periods. But what is driving that steady growth? You guessed it: standardization, self discipline, improvement, self discovery and growth for all. If we want lean to stick around for another 25 years, we need to get back to basics.

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At July 9, 2009 at 10:14 PM , Anonymous Peter Patterson MD said...

Hello Bryan,
Like you, most of us engaged in Lean initiatives often think about failure.

I've been engaged in continuous quality improvement for over 30 years, including a stint with a Fortune 500 healthcare manufacturer. I joined them in the middle of their world-class quality revolution and got great on-the-job training and took every quality course the company offered.

Over these 30 years I've watched many continuous improvement programs come and go -- they all seemed to fade away. The list includes CQI, TQM, CPI, Reengineering, Deming management method and probably some others I can't recall.

So why did they all fade away? I think you're right that some of the reason was lack of leadership and self-discipline. But I think the reasons go deeper and there is a connection to TWI.

My experience has been that most continuous improvement disciplines ultimately failed to achieve their promised benefits because they do not connect properly to the organization’s people. By this I mean they are typically imposed on people from above until the poor devils succumb. This is the usual modus operandi in organizations and can be characterized as the "default" culture -- the one we inherit rather than the one deliberately installed The default culture -- blame, shame and punishment -- is the usual modus operandi in organizations. It ultimately kills off the flame of continuous improvement.

By contrast, the promise of Lean includes "respect for people". When this is done properly, the organization’s people are first engaged. Then their interest is cultivated – continuously. This includes the kind of one-on-one training embodied in JI. Whether Lean and TWI survive will ultimately depend on whether organizations can alter their default cultures sufficiently to engage and cultivate the interest of their people. Stay tuned. The story is not yet finished.
/Dr. Pete

At July 13, 2009 at 5:32 PM , Blogger darrint said...

I think quality needs to be packaged and sold better.

This gives me flashbacks to extreme programming, a now well known software quality program that really gained a lot of haters early in it's popularization.

A lot of teams tried it and most failed. Then they thought XP was stupid. Promoters of the method emphasized that you really had to do all of it for it to succeed. So it went, we tried it, and it failed. And then they're like, you did it wrong dude. And they're like, no we didn't. And then they're like, oh yeah? Prove it.

They've since communicated better I think, and have a better success ratio, but I don't know that for sure.

I'm wary, at this point, of any method which responds to this kind of failure with "you did it wrong".

People are not resistant to change. They just need to be sold on benefits. That's a simple matter of using known and trainable techniques to communicate.

I'm a grouchy programmer of 10 years and even I'd be willing to have standard work imposed on me IF I knew I got to be part of a team that was consistently good at doing it's job.

Probably the whole thing has to get renamed. Also the culture of learning the basics from expensive consultants has to go. Also it has to be free. Also free as in teasers on a consultant's website has to go. Free means the whole thing can be learned from a web page and youtube, mostly youtube. And the whole oh thank you for beating me Sensei thing? That totally doesn't distract from the value of the thing. Totally keep that.


At July 24, 2009 at 1:18 PM , Blogger sparham said...

Well said Dr. Pete. It is a culture change. Change is difficult for most people but it is imperative for a business to survive. People need to know they are a valuable part of the whole. I agree that often times, those in management or supervisory roles fail in that aspect. TWI helps reinstate respect for people.

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