One of my least favorite questions

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 12-16-14

I get a lot of questions – during my coaching and advisory visits, after delivering a speech, by email, by phone, and sometimes from conversations started in airports. I try to answer every last one of them, which could be a full time job all by itself. But there is one question that is one of the most common I receive yet a question I really dislike.

What company is really good at lean?

“Why do you want to know?” I respond. Answers vary from wanting to learn from the best to wanting to be inspired (or inspire others). But two things are always true: 1) they want to benchmark them and 2) they’re reasons are very vague.

Why does this question bother me? There are two reasons.

First, I’m not so sure there is such a thing as a great lean company. Toyota is held up as the example, and there is no question they are great at many things, but not everything. There are many companies that I respect greatly for their lean efforts, and they have much to be proud of. And they have much left to work on.

There was a client who had improved dramatically their financial performance, their operational performance, and even their human performance. I talked to them about perhaps sharing their story. Their response was telling of a true lean company: “We have too big a gap to where we want to be to talk about our success.” They were focused on the journey, and felt they were further away from their destination than ever.

Second, and perhaps more importantly to a request, this is what broken benchmarking looks like. People love to visit companies – I get that. But that rarely leads to real learning. You need a clear learning objective to make benchmarking effective. What are you trying to accomplish? What problem are you trying to solve?

I’ll continue to get this question, and I’ll continue to do my best to answer it, but my answers may now include a link to this post.