Lean? A Business is Not a Diet Plan

A Business is not a Diet Plan

Moving From Lean to Flow for Medium to Small Business

The roots of so-called Lean are in the Toyota Production System. When Lean people use the word Muda, it is to imply cut waste. Muda, however, does not mean waste, and it is rarely mentioned by father of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, without its siblings, Mura and Muri. Muda/Mura/Muri!

Lean is more than waste

What in the Heck is Muda?

Muda is made up of two pictograms (無) trivia and (駄) in practice. (Sanseido Dictionary) Seems like that is very different from the meaning of the word waste: "an act or instance of using or expending something carelessly" (American Heritage) Careless implies a willful act.

Trivia is not the same as careless. After all, the American Heritage Dictionary defines it as: "details, considerations, or pieces of information of little importance or value." As you can see, trivia does not imply fault. It might even be entertaining. It is a relative term. Furthermore, what may be trivial to the task at hand may not be trivial to another. The important question is "importance or value" to what?

And Then, Believe it or Not...

In my opinion, Lean people translated Muda as waste to appeal to corporate america by reducing the breadth of its meaning so it could sell consulting: good marketing, perhaps, but a shame for what was lost in translation. Muda ́s sisters Mura and Muri matter!. Mura means unevenness: physically or spiritually inconsistency. Muri (無理, means to be unreasonable, to overburden, or be absurd. (Sanseido Dictionary)

Lean implies no waste, no fat, no carelessness, efficient. But, you can be efficient and ineffective; efficient in the wrong things. In fact, many small and medium businesses are, as are many start-ups. Companies under a regime of cost "reduction" have found that out the hard way.

If Not Cut then What?

Beyond Lean to a System

You can be messy and inefficient, but effective at doing the right things. Efficiency is over-rated. It too often means to cut down to the bone (in Corporate-speak). For them it's all about short term profit. For you, be efficient in what matters. Surely no one has the resources in time, people and money to be efficient in everything, and every trivial efficiency robs resources from what matters: the flow of adding value to your product or service directly for the people who buy them.

you are going to love this!

What does eliminating the things that are not important to the things that matter for your business mean in practice? Not overburdening your people or machines, (Muri) getting rid of uneveness (Mura) and getting rid of the steps that are not necessary to the flow of adding value for your customers to the things you actually sell.  Truly, the height of trivial is to produce things you will not sell. If you eliminate the trivial, create evenness, remove inconsistencies and stop being unreasonable by overburdening and making people do absurdities, without a doubt you will end up with better flow.  Flow should be your focus, not cost cutting or lean.

Cutting costs creates fear, and scarcity.  On the other hand, increasing flow creates abundance and people filled with pride enjoying their work. Making them fear waste is not a way to inspire people to better quality.   Lean projects have failed on this point. Better Quality is the only sure fire way to more delighted customers, lower overall costs and more profit, (the real kind, not the spreadsheet kind; the kind that actually goes into the bank.)

Am I serious?

Waste: 1. an act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose:it's a waste of time trying to argue with him. they had learned to avoid waste• archaic the gradual loss or diminution of something: he was pale and weak from waste of blood• 2. material that is not wanted; the unusable remains or byproducts of something: bodily waste (wastes) hazardous industrial waste. (Oxford Dictionary)

Synonyms to Waste: a waste of money: misuse, misapplication, misemployment, abuse; extravagance, wastefulness, lavishness. 2 household waste: garbage, rubbish, trash, refuse, litter, debris, otsam and jetsam, dross, junk, detritus, scrap; dregs, scraps; sewage, effluent.

People always know you are implying carelessness and blame when you mention Waste. And too often, Lean becomes Squeeze.

Actually, the father of the Toyota Production System clearly stated, "at Toyota, we don't do Lean."  "don't copy us... study then make it your own."

Experience Matters!

There are no 7 steps of anything that will guarantee success, because only using your noodle and testing your hunches in reality can give you the knowledge you need about your unique business. (a bit of luck helps as well!)

Based on my 40 plus years of experience working in management, unnecessary or trivial to the overall flow is a better definition for Muda than waste, and it would be a much better thing for you to hunt and root out the trivial, the overburdening, boring, and Inconsistent, and get rid of it, rather than cutting out the living flesh along with the fat by simply cutting costs.

Unnecessary here and now...perhaps in another universe, or another process, it could be necessary, but it is not to the task at hand nor to your overall goals. Waste, the word, leads down a slippery slope to scaring the bejesus out of the people who work with and for you, and fear is the mind killer.

Something becomes unnecessary, or muda, in relation to the flow of adding value to what your customers are actually buying. Aim to clarify and increase that flow.

We have achieved a level of teamwork and enjoyment of work that I don’t believe would ever have been possible without Dan’s help. And we did it by learning, I would have never thought.

James Manning 
RES food Inc.

simple steps for Putting it into Practice

Ask yourself: 

  • What do your produce? Of what you produce, what actually sells, and what sits around waiting to be sold?

Now, get some post-its® and write down every step in your work floor. Use a different color for each type of product or service if you wish. Post its are easy to move, but you can use a pencil and paper.  A great tool to help you with this is my Simply Looking Infographic.

Arrange them in sequence, on a wall, according to how they are done. Do not do this in your head, go to where the work is done and model what actually happens.  (This will take an hour or two.)

From Lean to a Flow Chart

Now look at the wall. Focus on the items that sell. 

  • Do you see any trivial steps, steps that are unecessary or unimportant to adding value directly?
  • Any people or machines that are overburdened?
  • Any unevenness in the flow of adding value? (some places waiting for the previous step to finish or things piled up before a step waiting.)
  • Do you see absurd, boring or burdensome things?
  • Or the same things being repeated?
  • Any Multi-tasking?

Talk with your people about ways to eliminate them. Move the post-its around, or erase and redraw your paper. This is called clarifying the Flow.

Finally, create a new workflow, and test it. If you nailed it the Flow will increase on its own. If not, repeat the process until you see a breakthrough change.  At Brownie De Luiz, they spent a day observing and proposing, a day preparing for the test, and the next day implemented changes which saw an immediate increase in productivity of 39% company wide. Same people, same machines, better process.

And a request...

Then share the results with me, or if you need help, contact me. Talk is affordable, and sometimes a few well placed questions from a person of experience can save much more.


About the Author

Dan Strongin works with medium to small companies, helping them master the art and science of managing.

  • Travis

    Dan, I’d say this is a pretty good take-down of the “cut,cut,cut” mentality in the Lean World. Words matter but I’d say it is even more a function of people bending words to meet their paradigm. People living in the Cost World tend not to be focused on FLOW. They’ll naturally gravitate to Kaizen and forget all about Kanban.

    One major point about flow that you don’t touch on is the critical first step of “Preventing overproduction”. Eli Goldratt summarized a general approach to flow in is paper “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” (Goldratt, 2008). In the paper, he defends his argument that the Assembly Line, the Toyota Production System, and TOC are all different applications of the same generic approach to FLOW. The solutions are obviously different but he proposed that algorithm was the same – only applied to different problems, different core realities.

    “1. Improving flow (or equivalently lead time) is a primary objective of operations.

    2. This primary objective should be translated into a practical mechanism that guides the operation when not to produce (prevents overproduction). Ford used space; Ohno used inventory.

    3. Local efficiencies must be abolished.

    4. A focusing process to balance flow must be in place. Ford used direct observation. Ohno used the gradual reduction of the number
    of containers and then gradual reduction of parts per container.”
    :::: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. Production concepts versus production applications.The Hitachi Tool Engineering example © Eliyahu M. Goldratt, 2008 ::::

    Regards,
    Travis