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deming, improvement, leadership, lean, management, transformation

Deming and Lean

I’ve read a lot of books and papers over the years that, in one way or another, touch on the subject of lean, and very few made the connection with the teachings of W. Edwards Deming.  Besides the fact that Deming had a huge impact on Toyota over the years, I don’t think it is possible to truly appreciate lean without a basic understanding of his philosophy on management.

I’ve included some quotes from Deming in this post to help demonstrate how his views on leadership and organizations helped form the foundation of the Toyota Production System.  Although one of the objectives of lean is simplicity, the methodology can be very complex, requiring a level of understanding of organizational behavior that I don’t think many people truly appreciate.  Success requires a continuing commitment to learn about the theories upon which lean was built in order to understand and deal with the specific situations, relationships, and interactions that make up an organization.  The more you understand the what and why of lean, the more effective you will be with the how during the deployment.

Deming would never tell anyone how to implement his theories – in fact, he would become visibly frustrated whenever anyone asked him about specific situations.  Like every great teacher, Deming would provide enough guidance to make one think and learn.  As it turned out, Deming’s theory of management provided the what and leaders at Toyota, Canon, and other companies used to develop the how.

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The average American worker has 50 interruptions a day, of which seventy percent have nothing to do with work.

The above statement covers the concepts of flow of work and value.  Without a clear and consistent understanding of the value provided by the organization, there is no way to know what has to “do with work” and what doesn’t.

The emphasis should be on why we do a job.

To prevent waste and guide improvement within an operation, those doing the work must understand value associated with the work.  Deming commonly used the example of cleaning a table to clarify the concept of operational definitions.  How can the person cleaning the table understand the level of quality required without first understanding why they are performing the job in the first place.  If the table is to be used as a workbench, it would require a different level of cleanliness as a lunch table, which is different from an operating room table.  The “why” provides direction for identifying and reducing waste within the work.

When a system is stable, telling a worker about mistakes is only tampering.”

A stable system is one where the level of variation is predictable.  Improvement of a stable system requires management action.  Pressuring workers to improve quality in a stable system will lead to frustration, stress, and most likely lower quality.  This is a commonly forgotten concept in the kaizen process.

“Everybody here has a customer. And if he doesn’t know who it is and what constitutes the needs of the customer…then he does not understand his job.”

A statement on internal customers and systems thinking.  A change in one area of the process, regardless of the impact on that particular area, is not an improvement if it negatively impacts the system as a whole.  Without understanding the system, it is not possible to clearly understand how each area supports the others.

Experience without theory teaches nothing

The Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle is central to lean and continual improvement – and a central theme to the cycle, which many people do not understand, is the need to clearly state a hypothesis to test.  Learning, which is critical to the success of a business, occurs through testing a hypothesis and studying the results.

It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, then do your best.

A business must know its purpose (including mission and vision) and continually connect its activities with the purpose.  The business planning process consists of deploying strategies that will continually move the organization closer to its purpose.  Attempting to improve activities that are not aligned with the purpose – something that is unfortunately all too common in business – is waste.  In lean terms, the “what to do” are the value-added activities.

All anyone asks for is a chance to work with pride.

One of the principles of the Toyota Production System is respect for people.  Allowing (and sometimes rewarding) non-value-added work to occur shows a lack of respect for people.  Generally, people come to work motivated and ready to contribute to the organization’s success.  Loss of motivation, mistakes, and high turnover result from management issues and, if these become a problem for the organization, it is up to the leaders to look at themselves to understand the reasons and make corrections.

Any manager can do well in an expanding market.

This is closely related to the “experience without theory” statement.  If leaders do not have a theory to explain an increase in performance, there is no guarantee that the success will continue.  The true test of management ability is during a downturn because that is where the organization’s weaknesses will show up.

Learning is not compulsory . . . neither is survival.

Lean is about striving for absolute perfection.  Although perfection is something that is impossible to ever achieve or sustain it is nevertheless the focus of continually improving.  Continual improvement requires continual learning as markets, suppliers, customers, technology, and the overall environment changes – and learning does not happen by accident.  It is the result of driving the PDSA cycle into the organization’s culture.

Understanding the Foundation for Lean

This post could go on and on with additional quotes from Deming that help build the foundation upon which to build a lean mindset.  The objective here was to make the connection and stimulate further learning in Deming’s system of management because I truly believe that doing so will lead to a stronger and more sustainable transformation of the organization.

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About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.

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