The Dangerous Analogy of Lean

We will have lots more about Lean Manufacturing and Lean Software Development sometime soon.

In the meantime, here is an unnecessarily long joke about Lean.


The Story of the Golden Stool from Japan

This joke is set in 1989.

So there were these three guys named Jim, Jeff and Dan. They knew that the Japanese automakers were kicking the butts of the Americans so they decided to go see what the big deal was. They made the trip to Japan and were greeted warmly by the Japanese.

"Sure, look at anything you want in our plants!" said the Japanese auto executives. "We are happy to share our ideas and processes with you."

Jim, Jeff and Dan were surprised by this. Most American companies consider their ideas and processes as trade secrets, so this was a great opportunity. Indeed, the processes the Japanese used were very different. There was just-in-time, the Five S's, value stream mapping, poka-yoke, kanban, muda, kaizen. The Japanese names made the things seem exotic, even if one of the S's was actually just "straightening" and muda just means "waste." Japanese names were cool. Jim got very excited.

"So, if American companies just used these processes," he said to Dan, "They could excel in the same way that the Japanese are today!"

A Japanese worker overheard Jim and came over to correct him. "Actually, these processes are only for Toyota. Who knows if they might work elsewhere? Our system is the root of our success. American companies can improve their own systems."

"Yes, yes, that's what I said, the system of processes," said Jim, thinking that there must have been something lost in translation to this poor Japanese guy. "Best practices, yes, I understand."

"Well, the system is not the processes," continued the Japanese worker. His white coveralls made Jim assume that he was a shop floor worker, which he was. "The way we do our work, our processes, are the output of the system. Our system helps us improve our processes. An American company's processes could be completely different. There are no 'best practices' as far as I know."

"One last question," Jim said, a bit impatiently. "What do you call your system?"

"There is no name. Taiichi Ohno told us at the beginning that if we try to give it a name then people will just look at it like a toolbox. But it's not a set of tools."

"Okay, thanks," said Jim, and rushed off with the other Americans to take photos at the next plant.

"We will never sell this in America unless we have a catchy name, I'm telling you," said Jeff in car on the way back to the hotel.

Jim agreed. "What's the big deal about naming a system?"

Finally, when the three Americans had visited all the plants they had set out to see, they met briefly with the Japanese executives one more time. The executives were so gracious and seemed genuinely pleased to have had the opportunity to host them.

"Really, the gratitude is all ours," said Jim, "You have been so kind to show us the details of your work. I feel like we understand it fully."

"With all due respect, Jim, I'm not sure that you do," said one of the executives. "Which brings me to this gift," he said, pointing to a beautifully wrapped large rectangular box. "We would like very much for you to have this."

Now the Americans were truly taken aback. Nice enough that the Japanese had shown them so much of their own trade secrets, but now a gift too! Dan picked up the box and unwrapped it. Inside was a stool, a sort of bar stool, made completely of gold. All three Americans caught their breath at this extravagant gift.

"Thank you so much," Dan exclaimed. "I can't tell you how much we appreciate this. But I have to ask, why a stool?" "The stool shows the value of what we do in manufacturing. Each of the three legs represents something valuable. The first leg shows just-in-time manufacturing. I think you've understood that quite well. The second leg shows continuous improvement. I'm not sure you have grasped that part of it, but you seem to appreciate the need for it. The third leg is our system."

"Ah yes, the system," said Jim. "Everyone acts so mysteriously about this 'system.' Are people afraid to share it because that is your trade secret?" "It is definitely what sets us apart, and the key to our success" said the executive, "But we are not afraid to tell you. In fact, we've been trying to tell you about it all through your trip."

"Could you try explaining it one more time?"

"Sure," said the executive. "Our system lives in our people. It influences every decision and every action. It cannot be mapped on a chart on the wall. You could say it is culture, and that's part of it. Respect for people, that's part of it. The system includes everything about how we interact with one another, how management treats employees, how much trust people have of each other, how we perceive ourselves as a company and even how we handle people from the outside, like you."

"That still sounds kinda fuzzy," said Jim. "Are you sure you can't map it out to understand and analyze it."

"You cannot do that with the system," said the executive. "I'm sorry."

The three Americans thanked the Japanese executives again for this gift and all their time and energy, and then left to return to America. After the long flight back to Massachusetts, Jim, Jeff and Dan picked up their luggage in the airport. "Where's our golden stool?" Jim asked, a flash of panic in his eyes. Just then, the carefully wrapped package with the stool came crashing down the baggage track, looking a lot worse for wear. Jeff quickly grabbed it and started inspecting it. Sure enough, there was a hole in the packaging where it had obviously hit something sharp. Jeff opened the package and one of the legs had broken off and was nowhere to be found.

"Do you think someone stole one of the legs?" Jeff asked, incredulous.

"Yeah, or maybe it fell out when the package was damaged. How did that hole happen?? This airline is going to get one helluva of an insurance claim from a very angry customer," said Jim.

"Which leg is missing?" Dan asked. "Looks like the leg marked 'system' is the one that's gone," said Jeff. "The continuous improvement and just-in-time legs are fine."

"Oh no, we have to present our ideas at the conference this afternoon!" said Dan. "What are we going to do?"

"We'll do our best," said Jim, and they caught a cab to the conference center where they about to be the the headliners in just one hour.

The crowd assembled in the large auditorium. Jim, Jeff and Dan were on stage. They decided to bring the golden stool on the stage with them. It gleamed in the bright stage lights, even though it was missing one leg. Jeff placed the stool up against the wall so it would stand up straight. Jim presented everything his group had learned in Japan. He told them about kanban, Five S, kaizen. Exciting stuff.

Finally, someone in the crowd asked "What you've shown us is incredible! This is so different from what we do here in the U.S. I'd love to take a class on it. But what do you call it?" Jim looked at Dan. Dan looked at Jeff. They all looked at the golden stool. The stool shone brightly, its gold metal reflecting the bright spotlights. "I don't care what Taiichi whatshisname said, we need a catchy name if this thing is going to sell," said Jim under his breath. Beads of sweat dripped slowly down Jeff's cheeks. Dan gazed over at the stool one more time for inspiration. He saw it as it rested against the wall.

Finally, he said quietly "Lean."



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