Throw Away Your Favorite Lean Tool

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 08-06-20

Whether it’s problem-solving, or kaizen, or process optimization, or waste elimination…no matter what you’re trying to accomplish, you must have a firm understanding of the current reality. This doesn’t mean just the results, but the process or work or causes that lead to those results. Every lean thinker understands this. But how do you approach understanding the current state? Most lean thinkers are doing this wrong. 

The reason for that is that they have a favorite tool. They might be using that effectively and properly, but too often. Whether it’s process maps or fishbone diagrams or 5 whys or problem breakdowns or cause and effect diagrams or …you get the picture. There are many methods to understand a problem. But if you have a favorite tool, you are likely using it because it’s your favorite and not because it’s the right tool for the job. 

Open your toolbox at home. You might not really have a favorite tool, but imagine if you did, and it was the hammer. It’s a beautiful hammer, with a carbon fiber body and steelhead, with some wear marks showing it’s been well-loved. Because it’s your favorite, you ALWAYS try to use your favorite tool first. If the hammer doesn’t work, then maybe you move on to a screwdriver or pliers, but you always start with your favorite hammer. What’s the harm in that? Well, try using a hammer on every job in your house and let me know if it makes things better or worse.

This happens with lean tools and methods all of the time. Let me provide an example that might appear extreme, but is not beyond what I observe all the time. I was working with one team who was trying to reduce the amount of fines they pay to their customers. Fines and fees were generated for all sorts of things, from labels being misapplied to showing up late or early. The fines were adding up, and they had a goal of reducing them. There were a lot of dollars on the table. Because there was so much process improvement done, their favorite tool was a process map. So they set about process mapping. They couldn’t “process map” the generation of fines and fees, because if there was a process to do that, they should just stop. So they process mapped the fee reconciliation process. When they completed the map, they didn’t know what to do, so they came to me. They asked how to use this map to help their goal, and I told them to throw it away. “But…but…but…we put so much effort into this.” True, but it was the wrong tool for the problem statement. They were so comfortable with process maps they tried to use them to understand every problem, even when it doesn’t shed enlightenment on the causes of that problem. 

This might seem extreme or obvious to you with this example. But the fact is I see it all over. I’ve fallen victim to it myself several times. When a tool starts working for you, you want to use it more. You don’t stop to ask if it’s the right tool. Toss your favorite tool away for a while, and open up your thinking to explore additional methods to accomplish your goals. Here’s the important step: when you’re ready to understand the current state of a problem, ask yourself two questions: 

  1. What do we not understand about this problem? 
  2. What’s the best way to learn what we need to learn? 

Then use that to pick the right tool for the job, and your improvement efforts will be more effective and efficient.