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Bruce Hamilton

Lean

Tools or Culture?

Two sides of the same coin

Published: Monday, October 30, 2017 - 12:01

The first two books I ever read about lean were Zero Inventories (McGraw-Hill, 1983) by Robert Hall, and Japanese Manufacturing Techniques (Free Press, 1982) by Richard Schonberger. In 1985, these definitive academic works were among just a few sources of information about what was then referred to as “just in time,” or JIT for short.

As I was just starting to manage a factory at that time with inventory turns of less than one (really), these JIT “how to” books seemed like the solution to my problems. I owe Hall and Schonberger a debt of gratitude for their early reports about the technical aspects of Toyota’s incredible improvement system. But, for me, the single most important shred of information from these texts was a footnote in Hall’s book that referred to a then-unknown industrialist by the name of Shigeo Shingo. Hall cited Shingo’s book, A Study of the Toyota Production System: From an Industrial Engineering Viewpoint(Productivity Press, 1989). This book presented the technical aspects of lean in a context of revolutionary concepts and principles. The original 1982 version was a crude translation from the Japanese, but reading it created a sense of excitement about a wholly new way of thinking about work.

To be sure, Shingo’s explanation of tools echoed reports from Hall and Schonberger, but as one of the key inventors of TPS, Shingo shared a deep understanding that was grounded in unique personal experience and the wisdom of a creator. Although he is most often remembered for introducing technical concepts like quick changeover and mistake-proofing, Shingo’s greatest contribution to my learning was in providing an integrated image of TPS, a system that was both technical and social science—both tools and culture. One could not exist without the other.

Beyond that, Shingo conveyed his personal struggles to overcome what he referred as the “conceptual blind spots” of his clients, Toyota among them. He gave us the law as well as the gospel: Lean is an immense opportunity but equally a daunting challenge to rise above status-quo thinking. “Keep an open mind,” he reminded us. According to him, management’s No. 1 job was “volition,” i.e., a passionate commitment to creating an environment that favored improvement.

These were lessons that supported my organization and me as we learned new tools and unlearned old concepts at the same time.

Today I’m often asked, “What do we work on first, tools or culture?” I answer, in context of the TPS, that neither has substance without the other. They are two sides of the same coin. We need to learn them together.

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About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.