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The question we forgot to ask Toyota!

I had the wonderful privilege of having a full career at Toyota. I even got to have one of those dream jobs for a decade: Dean of the University of Toyota. How cool is that!

In my new life as a consultant, I get to work with companies on their "lean" and "leadership" challenges. Where I see the biggest challenge is companies struggling to adapt "lean principles and practices" to the service side of the business. For example, just about every hospital I know is trying to get "lean" in some way but only a few are sustaining any real gains. Here's the question we forgot to ask Toyota, the exemplar of lean:

Does this stuff work beyond the shop floor?

An even better question would be:

How "lean" are your non-manufacturing operations?

I believe the answer would be something like this:

The farther we get away from the shop floor, the less lean we are.

In fact, if you look at how Toyota promotes, distributes, markets, and sells cars here in its major US market, you will see "push" system that is anything but lean -- and filled with huge amounts of variance-producing actions (mostly in the form of promotional incentives at the retail level). Although Toyota has one of the most loyal and effective dealer bodies in the world -- you won't see much "lean" influence in these operations that face off with customers.

This is not a dig against Toyota. Rather, it is a pause point for all of us trying to get lean on the service and demand side of our businesses. If Toyota, one of the best managed companies in the world, has been unable to exploit lean principles across the system . . .

What makes you think you can?

Here's the deal. There is great promise in lean principles and practices beyond manufacturing. Unfortunately, the current state of application is simply not working for one key reason. The tool kit (fixing things) and the supporting mindset (removing waste and solving problems) does not match up to the demands of an "open system" environment where the dynamics of improvement and growth need to be managed in a totally different way! (To be continued . . . )

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