Most lean practitioners understand and would agree that it’s a good practice to try things out prior to making changes permanent. Trying things out through simulations and mockups allows us to test changes against anticipated results so that we can see what works and what does not. The practice of testing ideas against an anticipated result allows us to learn from every change we make. This is the essence of making improvement through the scientific method. In practice, many lean practitioners experiment without first clearly defining what is ideal in terms of the total process.

A common approach to improvement begins with making an intense observation of the current state. After the current state situation is understood, the next step taken by many individuals is to brainstorm on the current state for improvement opportunities. Subsequently, ideas are generated, tested, refined and then implemented. This seems like a fairly sound practice and using this approach will more than likely achieve some positive results for you. However, when I see individuals taking this exact approach and I ask them why they made that particular change or took that particular course of action, the response seems starkly familiar to the response I gave my lean coach from Toyota many years ago. “I made this improvement because it removes waste and it’s certainly an improvement on the current condition.”

Years ago, I was assigned by my company to help a supplier over a 6 month period of time improve the total value stream of the part they were supplying to us. A coach was assigned from Toyota to guide me in my project. I began immediately removing waste wherever it surfaced. I had made significant progress in reducing labor and inventory. My coach returned for a visit and reviewed my progress on the production floor. I was expecting applause but only got a question: What specific problem are you trying to fix? You are jumping all over the place making changes without clear direction. Then he asked another question. “Please define for me what ideal is in terms of this total process”. I answered by providing the following: “One piece flow, no delays, full utilization of manpower and produce only what the customer wants when they want it”. His reply was “Very good!……… Now go do it”.

I was expecting a little more direction than this. However, what he did was to help me establish a clear pathway forward to an ideal target condition. Then every experiment we structured was with this end in sight. We never did achieve one piece flow, but we came much closer to achieving it during those 6 months. We freed up so much floor space that we eventually consolidated two facilities. Without a clear vision of the ideal process, we would have never achieved this magnitude of outcome.