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Updated: Aug 9, 2023


Eduardo Lander, Jeffrey Liker, and Tom Root

by Jeffrey Liker and Eduardo Lander

Over the years we have been frustrated by a number of common misunderstandings about what Lean is, what the journey is like, and how to advance. Often these misunderstandings come from the way people simplistically talk and think about Lean. It is as if it is some concrete thing that you insert into an organization and step back to watch the results.

If there are problems it means you are doing it wrong, or maybe your consultants are not very good at it. You get deluged with new terminology, maybe feeling a bit overwhelmed. But senior management wants results, and they want them fast, so you madly deploy this Lean stuff across the enterprise, as quickly as possible. It is like a race. Some things stick and most do not.

To make matters worse it is difficult to apply all the Lean concepts exactly as Toyota does because unlike Toyota, you do not make vehicles on an assembly line with one-minute cycle time repetitive jobs. What was management thinking when they suggested this Lean stuff? We refer to this as a mechanistic approach to Lean deployment.

Another perspective views the organization as a living system with interacting parts and constant exposure to the environment, which is dynamic so it’s hard to predict what obstacles you will face next. Just when you think you have it solved new challenges arise from the market, competitors, government regulations, and every direction you turn to. In fact, it is not surprising that there are problems implementing lean. In fact, the lean tools themselves (e.g.. visual management, kanban, standardized work) are designed to surface problems. Toyota has a simple perspective: we cannot predict the future so the best we can do is try out our ideas and learn from what happens. Whe

n you look at your organization in this way you see Lean through a different lens. The goal is to make your processes and people into a more adaptive system so you can navigate through all the complexity and uncertainty to regularly achieve your goals. This is how Toyota views things and they summarize the Toyota Way as continuous improvement and respect for people. Each person becomes a partner in struggling to learn and adapt, and specific tools are used in very different ways throughout the company to accomplish their goals.

To most people this all makes sense, but few have experienced it. We have, at a small company called Zingerman’s Mail Order (ZMO). Now you can too…

Lean in a High-Variability Business is a graphic novel that tells the 15-year story of Zingerman’s Mail Order as they improved their processes and developed their people through Lean and Kata.

Our purpose is not to provide a ‘recipe for implementation’—quite the opposite. We want you to get a feeling for the struggle, for the learning process. We explain and demonstrate many Lean tools within the context of the journey and how they were adapted for this particular business which is characterized by high variability everywhere. And you get a ringside seat to the human drama of transformation and learning. It is written so that it can provide insights to experienced Lean practitioners and be read pleasurably by executives, managers, associates, and even some of your family members. The book provides a ‘tour’ of their current operation and then goes back to recount their journey, highlighting how solutions evolved through multiple cycles of refinement. The last part covers the explosion in engagement and improvement efforts that came with the introduction of Toyota Kata.

Come join us for a sneak peek…

Fortunately, ZMO found Jeffrey Liker and his student Eduardo Lander. Eduardo was looking for a site to do his dissertation research focused on lean in high-variability businesses. This was action research and the goal was to lead them through a transformation and document the process. Fourteen years in ZMO was considered a lean benchmark and giving tours. Let’s listen in…

Virtually every Lean tool you have heard of is somewhere at ZMO, in the warehouse or in the call center. But it was a constant struggle to get to this point. And Eduardo was learning to coach by doing, acting to a degree as a technical expert but also driving the managers to think through questioning. The goal was to develop the people to take responsibility for continuous improvement. Let’s go back in time and look at the transformation process itself…

As we saw from the tour, ZMO’s leadership team came a long way. They learned by doing. The results were stunning. For example, after changing locations about every two years, they have not moved since they began the Lean journey, they have significantly reduced mistakes that affected customers, and have almost doubled productivity. But there was one elephant in the room. They were not very good at engaging team members on the floor. This changed when they started practicing Toyota Kata…

The group experimented with the totes, first in stacking them upside down and then drilling holes because they noticed they stuck together. Neither worked very well. Two ‘failed’ experiments, but were they failures? The team was learning that their first ideas were not always correct. They persisted, eventually figuring out they could reallocate work so that the material handler delivered the totes just-in-time and positioned as needed. No more problem with stacked totes! Through persistence and experimentation, the group achieved their goals.

With Toyota Kata team member engagement exploded. They had up to eight teams working on kata projects at the same time, coached by the management team. Team members were lining up waiting for their turn to participate in kata.

The journey is very much alive today. It seems the more they learned at ZMO the more they realized how much more there was to learn. They continue to evolve, and now host courses on lean and kata through their lean lab.

This was a glimpse of the book. We look forward to your impressions, opinions, comments and questions…


Jeffrey Liker is Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Operations Engineering, University of Michigan and a professional speaker and advisor through his company Liker Lean Advisors, LLC, a network of associates to teach and consult in the Toyota Way.

Author of international best-sellers including The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer and award winning on other publications.

Specialties: Operational excellence, lean thinking, lean leadership, building high performance culture

Eduardo Lander is an independent Lean Consultant & Partner at DOBILO and also Founder & Owner of Custom Lean Systems, leading the evolution of Lean systems customized to the needs of the client. Develop the people and process capabilities to provide ever better value for customers. Use Toyota Kata to develop scientific thinking and make true continuous improvement a reality. Working mostly with small and medium firms facing high variability.

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