Lean management success is in its scientific DNA


© Nevit Dilmen

By France Bergeron and Joanne Gaudet.

Western science is still widely held as one of the most successful and powerful forms of knowledge worldwide. Its success builds mostly on a robust analytical approach and the use of empirical evidence to solve problems and support scientific claims. More recent transformations in Western science include a trend to the democratization of knowledge production. Two examples of democratization are: (1) enlisting end-users and stakeholders to help define what research problems hold value and (2) scientists co-producing scientific knowledge with end-users and stakeholders in areas such as environmental, educational and health research. Knowledge co-production blurs the boundary between expert and non-expert where everyone’s knowledge is respected and valuable. Moving research into the real world where scientists and co-producers must deal with complexity and learn to expect the unexpected also means continuously adjusting the course of action to reach common goals.

Using a science analogy, the DNA of the Lean approach is essentially made up of the scientific approach with all of its empirical rigour and democratic knowledge production. It is not surprising therefore that Taiichi Ohno and his successors at Toyota have never hesitated to share their experience with the Toyota Production System. They do so because they know full well that the success of the Toyota Production System does not reside in the use of tools that can be indiscriminately applied in any context – it resides instead in the rigorous use of the scientific approach. Therefore, the starting point for the approach is a respectful environment of equals, anchored in specific contexts, where people co-identify (with end-users and stakeholders) what holds value and co-produce knowledge to address known and surprising problems encountered in order to continuously deliver and improve on this value.

In Western science, tools to gather empirical evidence have changed over the years from hand-made to today’s high tech nanotechnology. Successive waves of tools are held to existing standards and rigours of reproducible measurement. A great many of these scientific tools help make what is typically invisible, visible and measurable in some way, so that it can be investigated and perhaps contribute to further knowledge and action. Think of the ever-changing medical tools to better understand the human body: X-rays, ultrasounds and MRIs for example.

In parallel, Taiichi Ohno commented that management tools he developed – to help make problems visible that otherwise would remain invisible – were not set in stone. On the Seven Types of Waste, for example, he readily acknowledged that the number seven was arbitrary and encouraged users not to dwell on the type of waste – but rather to “get on with it” and improve (see p.175 of Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management, 2013). In our Lean work we are also integrating a new tool, organizational network analysis, to help render visible mostly invisible informal communication networks.

If we took an X-Ray of Lean, the scientific approach would clearly form the strands of its robust DNA!

Originally published on LinkedIn Lean management success is in its scientific DNA.