Is Lean Based on Deming?

April 11, 2010 — Posted by Al Shalloway

Well, it depends. Depends on what you are trying to do. Are you trying to explain Lean or are you trying to get someone to be able to take advantage of its principles and apply them in their own work? I'm much more interested in the second. My own experience is that people can best apply Lean-Thinking by understanding Deming's System of Profound Knowledge and adding Taiichi Ohno's (creator of the Toyota Production System) concepts of Just-In-Time and autonomation. Hence, that's what I teach it as being – because what's important is not that they understand its history, but that they can use it in their own work. If, in fact, this explanation helps people apply it, then I think that is what it is.

First, and foremost, I am an educator. I created Net Objectives with the vision of "effective software development without suffering". A part of the mission of manifesting this vision is to provide people with the knowledge they need to do their job well. Better equipped people suffer less. So, when I talk about anything, it is more about how they can learn what they need than it is about explaining the thing in particular.

In both my studies and experience of transforming individuals and organizations I have learned that people learn best by building off of what they know. That is, it is best to start where they are and add layers of knowledge until they get to where they need to be (see" Trim Tabs and Pick Up Sticks" on our Coaching page – note you'll need to register to see it). A common error in explaining anything is to explain it in terms of its own existence. It is much easier for people to understand things from their own perspective. See The Design of Everyday Things. I'm sure you've experienced software designed from a user's perspective as well as software designed from a developer's perspective. One type of software is much easier to learn than the other – and for the same reason – we learn better when taught from our own experience.

My own personal experience to Lean came via Deming. I studied Deming in the 80s (even bringing him in once to a company of mine). When I studied TPS after having read the Poppendieck's first book, it was a very easy jump for me to get Lean and start applying it to software. I found that when I taught Lean from the foundation Deming provided, adding Taiichi Ohno's work, people not only were able to grasp Lean's concepts, but were able to apply them to some extent. I guess I got hooked on this approach through my early success.

This impression was strengthened because, for a few years, I met few (any?) people who understood Lean who didn't also understand Deming – thereby reinforcing my connection. However, in the last few years, I've met a few people who apply Lean incredibly well to product development (better than I) and who didn't come from Deming. In all of these cases, however, they understood systems thinking and their approaches to solving problems were consistent with Deming. They also came to the importance of time via eliminating delays as more important than increasing productivity or decreasing cost. Two of these bright fellows are Guy Beaver and Don Reinertsen.

I have been fortunate to see Guy expand on his knowledge of Lean while working with Net Objectives (he's in our Charlotte office). Prior to Guy, I had never met someone who truly understood Lean without understanding Deming – yet here was someone in my own house doing just that. So I asked him how he had learned Lean. In his case, it was his Physics background (Masters) and his experience with our methods of product portfolio management. Again, systems thinking and time. Read about Guy's achievements from one of our customers at Healthcare IT News – Thinking Like an Enterprise Rewards.

I met Don more recently. Don is fairly well known as author of the incredible Managing the Design Factory and even more incredible The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development. Don has personally related to me that he came to a thought approach consistent with Lean via systems thinking by being a helmsman on a nuclear submarine and making the connection between speed of delivery and profitability as a consultant. Very much like my Deming + JIT notion again.

The point is, the best way I have learned to teach people Lean-Thinking is by teaching them the basics of Deming's System of Profound Knowledge and the importance of time – eliminating delays. Today I see a lot of people taking Scrum and adding work in progress limits – but not getting to Lean. What'd they leave out? Deming's systemic approach. When I talk about what something is, then, I don't mean its history – how it got to be the way it did. Do you really care? By what it is I mean – does that explanation help you get your job done. Bottom line, I'm more interested in what people can apply than in history.

Postscript: I don't even consider Lean as being defined by Toyota anymore.  See a version of my talk like the one presented at the Miami Lean/Kanban Conference in 2009 Lean-Thinking Redefined: Going Beyond Toyota.



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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


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