Printing Lean

Look before you leap

July 12, 2011

Due diligence is needed prior to embarking on any improvement plan – Lean included.

A guy walks into a bar. "Ow." OK, it's an old (and bad) joke, but it serves a purpose and that's to highlight the direct relationship between cause and effect. The effect, pain, ("Ow") was caused by walking into an object (a bar). Causes, and their effects, are what we look to eliminate when we go after waste (also known as muda), imbalance in the workloads of people and equipment (mura), and unnecessary strain or burden on people or equipment (muri). The causes are many; the effects are waste, imbalance, and burden. Without knowing and understanding the effects we can't be sure of getting to the cause, and if we can't be sure of the cause we won't know if we can eliminate it.

Who's on first?
Time and time again I'm confronted with this dilemma – telling someone that I can't help them unless they first tell me what's wrong. It usually goes something like this:

Business owner / executive: "We'd like to start implementing Lean!"
Me: "Ok. Tell me why?"
Owner: "Well, because we have issues and waste."
Me: "What kinds of issues? What wastes do you have?"
Owner: "Well, things are getting done wrong."
Me: "What kinds of things are getting done wrong? What's happening?"

Here's another scenario:

Owner: "We need to start using kanban!"
Me: "Why?"
Owner: "We need to have better control over our inventory."
Me: "Why? What's wrong with your inventory?"
Owner: "There's too much of it. It's everywhere!"
Me: "Are you having cash flow problems? Are you missing delivery dates? Do you have machines running out of materials? What's actually happening that you feel is inventory related?"

And so it continues.

Now, I'm not suggesting that companies don't have legitimate issues that need solutions, but either they don't or they can't connect the dots, the cause to the effect, and they usually ask for solutions before they even know if that's the solution they really need.

Manufacturing malpractice
If you were to go to a doctor, or even just call your physician on the telephone, and say to him or her, "I need this operation. When can you perform it?" or "I need this medication. When can I pick it up at the pharmacy?", the doctor (hopefully) would decline and suggest that you come in for an examination and discussion of what you feel is in need of an operation or medication. If the doctor failed to do this and, instead, went ahead and performed the operation or wrote out the prescription, then he or she would be guilty of medical malpractice.

A business owner or executive who asks a Lean practitioner to come in and help implement Lean without first having a thorough understanding of what ails the business is asking that practitioner to commit the same error as the wayward doctor – dispense a cure without first knowing the cause and its effect. This is what I call manufacturing malpractice: throwing solution after solution without first digging deep to find out what's really wrong, what's actually happening.

The 5G network
In order for us to identify the causes and to understand their effects, we need to use the 5Gs – genba, genbutsu, genjitsu, genri, and gensoku.

Genba, for those who are not familiar with the term, is loosely translated as the actual place. In business this would mean where the work is actually happening or where the problem that you're looking to solve is actually occurring. So we need to go to where the action is or to where the problem is, because we need to be there to see what's happening or what's not happening.

The second G, genbutsu, roughly translates to the actual work or the actual thing (-butsu means "object"). The third, genjitsu, translates to the actual reality. Genri means the actual reason and gensoku means the general principle or rule.
So in order for me to make a proper diagnosis and suggest countermeasures, I will need to:

Go to the actual place to see for myself (genba)
Get the facts about the actual thing or activity and not make assumptions (genbustu)
Grasp the entire situation about the issue to see what else may be happening (genjitsu)
Generate reasons that explain what is happening (genri), and then
Guide any actions or countermeasures to steer the outcome back to spec (gensoku)

By using this approach, I can make decisions about what to do based on the actual place, the actual work, the actual reality, the actual reasons and the actual standard that's expected but is not being met.

Look before you leap
You need to do some due diligence in order to make good decisions about making changes in your business. In Lean this means go and see for yourself, understand the situation, and look at all possible causes before you start applying any countermeasures. Before you take any medicine, make sure you know what ails you. If not, the cure might be worse than the illness.

Tom Southworth is a Lean consultant with CONNSTEP, Connecticut's Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He is a Senior Member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, a senior member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, SME Lean Bronze Certified, and a certified TWI Job Instruction and Job Relations Trainer. He can be reached by email at