Lean Transformations Group

Important Ways We Fail to Learn from Toyota

Why do we in North America so often struggle (and frequently fail) with our lean efforts?

When lean community members reflect on why Americans struggle to understand Toyota’s approach to business, we tend to focus on cultural issues in the organization. For example, I notice that we talk about issues relating mostly to unsupportive senior leaders or uninvolved line managers who focus too much on short-term results. I want discuss smaller ways that assumptions about management and performance improvement contribute to our failure to learn from Toyota.

I worked at Toyota North America for 15 years. Part of my job was to study Toyota thinking and practices in Japan and introduce them to North American leaders, managers, and executives. And indeed, since leaving 19 years ago, my colleagues and I have found it difficult to get lean thinking and continuous improvement efforts to take root and produce sustainable results in the U.S. Still, I have coached many American leaders across a wide range of industries and types of businesses on core Toyota business and operational concepts and practices including value stream mapping, use of the PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) cycle, A3 creation, problem solving, lean leader role and behaviors, coaching for development, strategy deployment, and change leadership. For this piece, I want to discuss frequent misconceptions about “Value Stream Mapping.”

First, this is not what Toyota calls it. The Value Stream Map at Toyota is just a “Material & Information Flow Map” and another performance improvement tool. The North American name “Value Stream Mapping” does, however, capture two key aspects of the practice. “Value” puts emphasis on the purpose of the work process being mapped, which is to create and deliver something that is valued by a customer. “Stream” highlights the means of satisfying the customer or the flow of the desired value from beginning to end of the work process. So the term “Value Stream Mapping” is fine, but other things concern me about how many people use value stream maps.

I see many Current State maps posted in project rooms and tracking centers, but these are often dried, dusty, and outdated (or they are stored in an old Excel spreadsheet tucked away in somebody’s computer). These Current State maps also tend to be by themselves with no Future State design maps in sight. Why make the Value Stream Map, then? What value do they add other than to show that you’ve done one? The real purpose of this form of process mapping is performance improvement. The map is a problem solving tool for identifying, prioritizing, and addressing problems in work flow that affect performance as measured, first and foremost in terms of effectiveness in delivering the work flow (timing, quantity, and quality) to the customer. Cost is a separate issue, and efficiency is a concern that comes only after delivery. This is because the business needs to be able to deliver value for the price the customer is willing to pay in order to make a profit and survive. In Toyota practice, the real reason to create the map is to find ways--either through problem solving or work flow redesign--to improve output performance. Effectiveness always comes before efficiency.

I see some organizations use value stream mapping as a means for performance improvement, but in many cases, the priorities for improvement are reversed. There is too little attention paid to overall performance (output). The map is created and used to do “waste-walks” (to identify examples of the seven or eight non-value adding work activities) and thereby reduce costs. This may sound like a good thing, but it still misses some key points. First, removing cost without looking at its role in the overall work flow may actually make the customer delivery situation worse. Second, waste is usually a symptom of deeper problems in the underlying work flow such as instability, variation, and overburden. Just removing waste in the work process does not address the cause of waste, and waste is likely to just return or crop up somewhere else.

An even greater concern than waste is where there are conditions in the work flow that act as barriers to smooth and continuous flow. Output delivery to customer as promised (a key to repeat business) depends on work proceeding through the process (value stream) in a stable and consistent flow. Removing individual examples of waste may or may not serve this larger purpose. Also, this generally overlooks what are often the greatest sources of instability and waste: issues in scheduling and information flow.

How do I suggest we use Value Stream Maps instead? I can describe two ways I saw Material and Information mapping used at Toyota.

  • Use Value Stream Maps to Inform Performance Improvement and Deliver on Strategic Priorities

A unit or area manager is expected to create current state maps of their processes and use what they recognize as barriers in flow and quality to create annual plans for performance improvement. These plans are meant to focus on contributing the operation’s hoshin (or strategic) priorities for the year. The manager systematically addresses barriers based on priority, assigning leaders and problem solving teams responsibility for removing individual barriers one at a time. As this problem solving process occurs, the current state map becomes an evolving representation of all work processes. It changes with each cycle of continuous performance improvement.

  • Use Value Stream Maps to See Performance Problems Clearly

I first saw this happen in a weekly performance improvement activity called a Jushiken. In this case, a special problem team (either for urgent performance improvement or leader training) comes together to address a significant work flow issue in a value stream. Team members work with operators in the process area to map the flow, do work balance around operations, identify and conduct rapid experiments with spot kaizens, and, if needed, design and test process redesigns.

The critical point to stress about both of these activities is that their purpose is not just to improve performance; it is to build and stabilize sustained performance capability… Which reminds me of a piece my Lean Transformations Group colleague Jim Luckman wrote called, “Doing Lean versus Becoming Lean,” for The Lean Post. In short, “doing lean” is just doing stuff with lean tools and practices. This seldom gets you much closer to “being” lean. “Becoming” lean requires purposeful use of lean tools to improve performance and build performance capability. This requires not only lean doing, but lean thinking. Similarly, doing something (like mapping materials and information flow) “because Toyota does it” should never be the goal, nor is it sound lean thinking reason. The goal should always be improved business performance. When we forget this, we have learned little of what has made Toyota successful. As Toyota executive Teruyuki Minoura said at an auto industry conference in Tokyo in 2003, the Toyota Production System really should be called the “Toyota Thinking System.”

Perhaps one reason we in North America struggle so much in our lean efforts is because we forget that the lean tools, concepts, and practices we are trying to use are not “plug-ins we can insert” to become lean; they are the product of the lean thinking Toyota has done to solve their operational and business problems. Perhaps the reason why Toyota isn’t struggling to get sustained results in any of its global operations, including those in North America, is that they are still doing the lean thinking we just haven’t learned to do yet.

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