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Lean Technology: An Oxymoron?

Posted by Mark Graban

Jun 5, 2014 11:00:00 AM

You Don't Have to Choose

4444061098_6eeaa7dc1a_mIn the Lean community, there are many who warn against the use of Lean technology, if not bad-mouthing it altogether. These folks are sometimes labeled or self-described as “Lean purists,” whatever that means. Lean and the Toyota Production System aren’t a matter of religious dogma.

Lean is an eminently practical field that asks “what works?” and evolves over time, in one company and as a community.

When I first learned about Lean in the mid 1990s, it was taught in my industrial engineering class as being a matter of production scheduling and inventory management. This is, of course, a very limited view of what Lean is really all about (it’s a broader philosophy and a management system). The choices in that area were “MRP” systems or Lean methods like heijunka boxes and kanban cards. The choice was between technology and simple, manual, visual systems.

Over time, this debate shifted to being about ERP systems versus manual Lean methods. People sometimes erroneously threw around the statement, even into the 2000s, that Toyota doesn’t use technology. That was incorrect then. Toyota used MRP systems, meaning computers, for long-range planning and then used simple manual methods for manufacturing and supply chain execution. It wasn’t an “either/or” choice - it was a matter of how technology works together with simple, visual processes… the best of both worlds.

When Jeff Liker published his outstanding book The Toyota Way in 2004, it gave a better look at Toyota’s view on technology. Toyota doesn’t eschew technology, they use it smartly. Liker documented Principle 8 of their management philosophy as:

“Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes.”

Technology for Toyota must also support your values as an organization. They don’t rush to implement every new, sexy technology just because it’s exciting. Neither should you. Technology must serve your organization, being a means rather than being an ends.

Liker added that “people do the work, computers move the information.” That’s how our KaiNexus platform works. It doesn’t automate the identification of Opportunities for Improvement and it doesn’t automate problem solving. KaiNexus is a framework that automates things that are time consuming for managers (such as tracking due dates and sending updates), allowing managers to focus on the real improvement work and the development of people. Instead of spending tons of time digging through old emails and fighting with spreadsheets, managers can get out of the office more because KaiNexus saves them time and helps them lead more effectively and efficiently.

Here is a recent video of a Toyota IT leader, Tim Platt, being asked about how to get past “suspicion” and “resistance” of information technology:




He says, in part:

“Primarily through practical, concrete examples of actually utilizing it and demonstrating, in a concrete way, this isn’t contrary to, in our case, the Toyota Production System, but actually enables it… to show we’re not trying to allow the manager to stay in the office and to see on a screen to see what’s happening on the floor, but actually giving them the ability to understand where the greatest issue is so that they can go to that location and spend MORE time on the floor rather than less.”

As Liker wrote of Toyota in his book:

“Any information technology must meet the acid test of supporting people and processes and prove it adds value before it is implemented broadly.”

We support that view and that’s what our customers do. KaiNexus gives them their own self-reported and validated data showing how much financial benefit they have gotten, in addition to safety, quality, and all other things that matter.

My advice is to not be dogmatic. See what works. Identify problems with your improvement efforts. Understand the causes. Find countermeasures that can be tested… like KaiNexus. Test things, do a pilot, see if it works… then spread the technology once you’ve validated that it supports your people, your process, and your values.

Topics: Lean

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