I’ve been reading about “lean” as it relates to the roots of Agile software development, specifically the creation and evolution of “lean thinking” at Toyota as described in The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker. The book emphasizes an important dichotomy:
- the practices and techniques used by Toyota termed the “Toyota Production System” or TPS (just-in-time, kanban, one-piece flow, etc.) as distinct from:
- the principles and philosophy that permeate the organization he calls the “Toyota Way”.
Liker sets out a resounding case for why lean is at best mildly effective when the implemented practices are not accompanied by the fundamental underlying principles and philosophy of lean thinking that is so engrained in the Toyota culture. One example he cites is particularly disturbing (paraphrased, pp. 11-12):
The Toyota Supplier Support Center (TSSC) was set up by Toyota in the U.S. to help U.S. companies learn TPS and lean. Over the years they worked with many U.S. companies in diverse industries, in each case doing a “lean project” by transforming one production line in a company using TPS tools and methods. Typically companies apply for TSSC’s assistance, but in 1996 TSSC made an unusual request; TSSC approached an industrial sensor company (“Lean Company X”) widely regarded as a best-practice example of lean manufacturing in the U.S. In fact, Lean Company X was a common tour site visited by other companies aspiring to be just as lean. Lean Company X even won a prestigious lean manufacturing award.
Nevertheless, Lean Company X accepted TSSC’s offer and began a nine-month improvement effort on one of Lean Company X’s production lines. At the end of the nine-month project, this previously “world class” production line was drastically altered. It had obtained a state of leanness X could not have thought possible and the production line leap-frogged the rest of X’s plant on all key performance measures, including:
- 46% reduction in lead-time to product product
- 83% reduction in work-in-process inventory
- 91% reduction in finished-goods inventory
- 50% reduction in overtime
- 83% improvement in productivity
What’s alarming here is that these numbers do not represent small-incremental change. This is radical improvement in a leading U.S. lean site!
Liker writes: “The problem, I believe, is that U.S. companies have embraced lean tools but do not understand what makes them work together in a system. Typically management adopts a few of the technical tools … But they do not understand the power behind true TPS: the continuous improvement culture needed to sustain the principles of the Toyota Way.
Reading this, I can’t help but feel as though this example foreshadows the future of the Agile movement. Too many organizations are dabbling in Agile and selecting practices that suit their needs without understanding and embracing the principles behind Agile and permeating real cultural change. Honestly, there was a time when I thought philosophies and principles were marketing gibberish, but experience has taught me otherwise. Stories like these in The Toyota Way teach me otherwise. Considering the sorry state of affairs in the U.S. auto industry, I hope we can learn from history and recognize that, like lean, Agile software development is about a fundamental cultural change toward continuous improvement and a corporate culture that puts the welfare of customers, employees, and the general public above all else.