Chicken or the Egg

A wise old Toyota dude once said something like, "Without standards, there is no kaizen!"

This one quote has been expounded upon in Lean Churches for over the past decade, at least in my personal experience. The meaning behind this is basically interpreted as this: if you do not stabilize a process, you cannot improve it. On the surface this makes sense, especially if you have the following MBO genome sequence solidly embedded within your DNA: "what gets measured gets done." In other words, it is difficult to understand if an improvement has been truly made, if we cannot measure it. And we cannot measure things if we do not have a base to measure from. Got it? Good.

My refrigerator is not what I would call standardized. Yes, it has two doors, it stands upright, runs on 120V electrical source, and it even has wheels! But the arrangement of food, which foods go in there, how much food goes in there, how long does it stay in there? NOT standardized. The result is what I would call a disaster if I were in a tool room and opened a tool chest and found multiple tools, damaged tools, missing tools, etc.

Let's test the assumption: "there is no improvement without a standard!" If I clean out the refrigerator and set it to the standards that satisfy me, have I improved the situation? My feeling is a resounding: YES!! Perhaps you disagree.

A week later, I see the nice neat organization going south again. Here is where the a debate emerges and seems to take on a different tenor:

"If you had standardized on the arrangement you wouldn't see this variation." Here is the pure technocrat coming out of the woodwork, chastising me for not establishing standard work, not training my wife in leader standard work and not decreeing to the children that they will follow the standard work in the household newsletter, Sharepoint site, monthly meetings, notices in your paycheck and for especially not including adherence to standard work in their familial member descriptions per the terms of their contractual membership in the family. Your adherence to standard work will be discussed in your annual performance appraisal as well. (Just imagine the benefits, your refrigerator will be visitor ready when guests arrive unexpected!) Only then, will we achieve the level of accountability of adherence we need to declare victory in the Lean Kitchen. I see book deals and speaking tours on the horizon...sorry, took a wrong, but typical turn there...

While it is true that my family backslid on the Lean Fridge initiative, did we not learn anything? Can we do something else to further along the effort? Did we not simultaneously improve and standardize the first time? What would we do differently on the second effort? Should we expect similar results? Why? What can we do to change the outcome the second time, the third, the fourth?

This line of questioning begins to breakdown the standardization myth, that improvement can't be had without it and that one comes before the other. Now, before you throw the heresy flag, let me be clear: I'm not saying that we shouldn't create standards.

But a recent discussion on LinkedIn brought to light a phenomenon that has become increasingly prevalent in the world of Leanies: improvement camps. It goes generically something like this: Leansters are over in the standards camp. Six Sigmites are in the variability camp. Generally speaking, these two camps have created a pretty meaningless debate: which comes first, standardization or variation reduction?

Leansters are quick to throw out the Taiichi Ohno quote...we can't improve without standards. Six Sigmites say we can't standardize an unstable process. Really? I'm pretty sure I got my refrigerator from 0% to 100% and then it slid back to 80%. Not perfect, but an improvement nonetheless. Each camp, in my opinion is using an old cliche to fabricate an excuse, masked behind their professions, to not do anything more than the minimum and cast blame against the other. A Leanster would 5S the refrigerator and then audit the hell out of it: the beatings stop when compliance begins.Then we would value stream map it. The Six Sigmite would setup a DOE on ketchup shelf location until the perfect location was had; and then my four year old discovers ketchup - rendering the DOE obsolete. Then he would complain when the Cp goes to hell and blame it on the parents.

This whole debate smacks of the chicken or the egg, and a lot of people buy into it. I've been asked: what should we do first in our lean initiative, because Toyota has an extremely stable process - don't you know?! Well, yeah, sure, but at one point, they did NOT. And over time, it became more stable. But I'm pretty sure that if you look close enough, you will find variability and instability in ANY standardized process. That is just what unbridled change and entropy does to our world. But that isn't what we recognize, instead, we debate which road map we should purchase before we take the journey.

Speaking of roads, transportation systems are inherently an unstable process, don't you think? How many different grades of roads are there? In Vermont, there are officially four grades, and then there are the ones you can drive on with a jeep or ATV. What are the different maintenance practices for those five types of roads? Do the change of seasons have an impact on one practice over another? How do local politics and budgets affect those practices from locality to locality even in regions where seasons are similar? Are roads truly standardized, despite the fact that we assume the nomenclature of "transportation system" implies standardization?

What about the vehicles themselves? Are the engine types standardized? Even within one class of engine, do we see standardization? What about in the material grades used in those engines? Are the engineering management approaches used in designing, verifying and validating engines standardized? What about the motivational and team capabilities between one engineering team and another, even in the same company? Perhaps things are not as stable as we would like them to be. If we follow Ohno's advice, we would improve nothing in the engineering disciplines. Keypoint: do not confuse stability with standards.

More on the vehicles: tires. Are tires standardized? Perhaps in some areas, but not in size.  How do economics and regulations affect these designs: locally, regionally, nationally, globally?

Suspensions, are all suspension created equal? Body styles, safety features, cabin features, etc. Seats, etc. Are you telling me that different fabrics, threads, dyes, equipment, tools and inspection devices are not disruptive to a seat manufacturer that makes a "standardized" product for the automotive industry?

And how do these automobile variables interact with road maintenance? The more questions we ask, the more the chicken and the egg become one.

However, if we look close enough, there are many, many things that involve people and their behaviors, around the process and science of building a transportation system that are standardized. The internal combustion cycle is one thing. Crash physics is another. Around those standards, we see interactions that appear as variability to us and we seek to shape it so that it suits our wants and needs. Variability and standardization seem to be two sides of the same coin.

I can't see how the chicken or the egg is a trick question, and also cannot imagine why on earth we would say that an improvement methodology doesn't apply to ANY situation, since it grounded in basic science and math and human behavior principles.

Furniture shops: Joinery is a very standardized discipline with a robust history and body of knowledge available to us. The same could be said about knowledge of wood materials, grain structures, cutting tools, machinery, finishing, etc. in developing innovative methods around the design, manufacture and finishing of wood furniture. I have a question for furniture makers who say that Lean doesn't apply in custom wood job shops: can you point me to a factory where only ONE type of furniture is made in high volume? Probably not since they would not be in business with that type of business model. Conversely, I can't point you to a factory where only ONE type of car configuration is made in high volume. It is easily argued that a configured car is thousands of times more complex than custom furniture. Why do we split hairs? The phenomenon is most likely rooted in our ability to focus on products which trigger our senses: touch, feel, sound, sight, taste and not process, which engages our mind first.

Once people start thinking about variability and standardization as part of the same problem and solution (which means we start thinking about people and processes as part of the same problems) perhaps then we will stop thinking that lean is simply a trick.

At any point in time, in any part of any process - STOP to take a look and ask yourself some simple questions:

- Is this process stabilized? If not, how can it be standardized?
- Is this process standardized? If so, how can it be simplified?

Both answers are going to eventually take you to the same conclusion, "something must be done". Just remember, one doesn't necessarily precede the other.

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