Developing An Appreciation For The System

Many lean implementation efforts have failed for either of two reasons:

  1. Individual tools are cherry-picked and implemented individually without understanding that lean tools function together as an integrated system.
  2. Or, lean is viewed only as a technical set or tools and the role of people and their behavior is forgotten or neglected.

In both situations, an understanding of lean as a system is lacking. This is why any lean practitioner must, in the words of Dr. Deming, have an “appreciation for the system.”

What is a System?

According to Wikipedia, a system is “a group of interacting or interrelated entities that form a unified whole.”

Here’s three examples of a system to illustrate the concept.

A body system

The human body is a system of organs with various tissues and structures that all work together to create and maintain life. The heart, brain, lungs, bones, etc are each different and unique.

Not one organ is capable of functioning separately from the others. They are all interdependent with each other in supporting life.

A computer system

Similarly, a computer is composed of various hardware and technologies. There is memory (RAM), processors, hard drives, graphics processors, and more.

It is only when all the hardware work together in a system that your experience in front of your machine is possible.

A sports team

Additionally, any sports team is a system of players. There are different positions and people involved. They have different functions and responsibilities concerning the team’s performance.

This example is also interesting because you could have the best players in the world on the team, but the team still lose to a group of inferior athletes that are better unified and effective as a team.

The individual expertise of any one player matters less than how the players work together to create a high-performing team.

Lean Is A System of Tools

Generally speaking, individual lean tools do not perform well unless part of a bigger lean system of applied tools.

One reason for this is that most every significant problem represents a systemof smaller problems. These smaller problems all interact with each other to one degree or another to present the “big” problem that is seen on the surface and complained about.

There may not be only one tool needed to solve this multi-faceted problem but many tools!

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Example: Building a Problem-Solving Culture

Let’s say that you have a goal of creating a world class problem-solving culture. There isn’t a single tool or answer for developing problem solving culture in organization. If it were so simple, you’d probably not be here at Lean Smarts looking for education and guidance!

So how does one go about developing this culture?

Tool #1: Standard Work

Let’s say the first observation you make is that your processes are lacking standardization. Without a standard a problem is poorly defined.

That’s because a problem is an abnormality to a standard.

So you first start out by defining standards throughout your organization.

Tool #2 Training (e.g. TWI Job Instruction)

There’s no point in having well defined standards if no one follows them. So the next tool you add into the mix is a bit of training.

Let’s say you learn and deploy the time-tested methodology of Training Within Industry (TWI) Job Instruction (JI).

Now you have training operators following standard processes. Have you realized a problem-solving culture? Not quite.

Tool #3 Team Leader Concept

Your operators might be all trained now, but how do you know that they continue to follow their standards?

This is important, because changes in production might make some standards inadequate. There might also be equipment breakdown, employee turnover, material or design changes, and other issues that make standards unachievable.

So regular follow-ups on standards are essential for detecting problems and driving improvement.

This is where the team leader concept comes in.

You can use team leaders to follow up on processes, people, and parts.

But this might present another problem… you probably don’t have enough team leaders! (After all, the best companies often have one team leader for every five team members.)

So that brings us to the next tool…

Tool #4 Waste Elimination

You probably can’t simply hire more people to increase the number of team leaders.

So instead, you must eliminate enough waste to free up manpower such that team leaders can be promoted from within your existing labor pool.

In this case you do whatever it takes… value stream improvements, work cell development, etc to free up resources.

Tool #5 Visual Controls

Your team leaders can now follow up on standards and detect problems on a regular basis.

But is there something more than can (or should) be done to assist team leaders in detecting problems? Yes!

Verifying adherence to standards is important. But what about production progress against the daily plan?

That’s where visual controls come in.

With visual controls—like an hour-over-hour board, run chart, etc.—a team leader can follow up on processes on the hour (or at some other logical interval) and see at a glance whether the process is ahead or behind schedule, or encountering problems or time losses.

So you add visual controls throughout the organization.

Now you have defined standard methods for processes and introduced a visual tool for monitoring actual production against planned production (the schedule, another kind of daily standard).

Tool #6 Leader Standard Work

At this point, the production process is fairly well standardized and there are tools in place to monitor deviations from standard.

But what is present to ensure that team leaders have the capacity and commitment to follow through on checking up on processes?

Just like any other leader, a frontline team leader can get pulled away from these important activities. A level of discipline and accountability is required, or else the whole system will fall apart when given enough time.

So you go a step further and even standardize the important daily activities that are expected of team leaders to complete. It’s called leader standard work, and it’s essentially a one-page list of activities, what time they are generally completed, and space for documenting observations and results.

With this tool now in place, you can have confidence that processes and team members are consistently supported by company leadership, and that your leaders are fully present to detect problems as they occur.

Tool #7 Daily Management System

But what about the team leaders… how are they to be supported? And how are upper levels of management to find out about the production floor challenges that team leaders discover?

There’s where a daily management system comes into play.

Every day in a 5-15 minute standup meeting, team leaders, supervisors, managers, etc. gather in huddles to escalate the challenges discovered by frontline team leaders.

Multiple meeting tiers may be used depending on the size of your organization.

Now, problems can be communicated and escalated to the full attention of management. There is also daily accountability for getting problems solved.

Tool #8 Problem Solving Methodology

Are we done yet? Not quite.

How are you to ensure that problem solving is carried out effectively?

Without training leaders and management in a problem solving methodology, problems might be identified and escalated, but they will not be effectively eradicated!

This is where root cause analysis, “five whys,” genchi genbutsu, problem solving sheets/A3 reports, and more come into play.

Leadership needs to be trained to approach problem solving hands-on and scientifically, or else everything so far is for nothing!


Can just one of these tools be leveraged independently of the others to create a problem-solving culture? No.

They work together as a system to support problem-solving, scientific thinking, and kaizen.


For the rest of this discussion, continue playing the podcast episode.

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Our Fundamentals of Lean course is designed to give any leader a broad understanding of lean manufacturing best practices, philosophies, and tools… in as little as 5 hours!