Learning from Lean

By Andrew Parris and Don Pope, reprinted from Christian Business Review. Citations have been omitted.

Part one of a series.

We live in an unpredictable, complex, competitive, pluralistic and divided world. Increasingly, successful businesses and organizations require leaders who understand the times and who can inspire and guide their teams to design and deliver superior valuable products and services for their customers. Christian and non-Christian leaders alike can base their leadership on the experience and thinking of pioneers who have developed concepts and tools that – when properly understood and applied – dramatically increase the likelihood of success of an organization. When we look across the wide variety of management systems, Lean stands out above the rest. With significant input from the West, Lean was developed and refined in Japan, and most successfully at Toyota. What may be called The Toyota Production System or The Toyota Way we call Lean, as it was first named by John Krafcik in 1988 and spread more widely by Womack and Jones in The Machine that Changed the World. Whether they call it Lean, Kaizen, Continuous Improvement, or something else, most successful corporations these days apply the concepts and tools of Lean in their operations.

Many have studied the origins of Lean. Most writers recognize the strong influence that Japanese culture and religion played in the development and acceptance of the Total Quality Management, Toyota Production System (TPS), Kaizen and Lean. In addition to the well-known Japanese fathers of the TPS (Sakichi Toyoda, Eiji Toyoda, Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo, to name a few), several writers also note a strong influence from the West, most notably from people like Henry Ford, Edwards Deming (a man of strong Christian faith), Homer Sarasohn and Peter Drucker, to name a few.

One Japanese manager explained to one of our friends on a Lean tour that what Toyota developed is not so much a reflection of Japanese thinking and culture, but a compilation and systematization of what works, based on years of tireless experimentation. Therefore, one can say that Toyota discovered truths about how organizations can succeed and organized these into a management system that delivers superior results.

In this article we begin by introducing the reader to Lean. Next, we present some striking parallels between Lean principles and Christian principles. These similarities give Christians confidence that they can learn from Lean and fruitfully apply Lean principles in their work and personal lives. Finally, we give specific suggestions on how to do this.

What Is Lean?

Lean can be thought of as a set of principles that are supported by practices applied by people. Some reduce Lean/TPS to just two principles (just-in-time production and respect for people), or “(1) the reduction of variability and removal of waste for cost cutting purposes and, (2) the full utilization of workers and employee fulfillment for human development purposes.” [Thomas M. Smith, “Lean Operations and Business Purposes: A
Common Grace Perspective,” Journal of Markets & Morality 18.1, 2015] We propose seven principles of Lean that make it more understandable and applicable to a wider variety of organizations, along the lines of those cited above who studied the origins of Lean. They are:

  1. We exist to provide value to our customers.
  2. Waste is the greatest hindrance to achieving our goals.
  3. A good root produces good fruit.
  4. The greatest long-term gains are achieved incrementally and continuously.
  5. Capable and empowered employees will achieve great things.
  6. We achieve better results when we work together.
  7. Value is created, learning happens and relationships develop where the action is.

To lay the foundation for further discussion, we briefly explain and summarize each principle below. [Note: Coming in part 2!]

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