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Lean Process Works at Toyota USA

by Deborah Hartmann Preuss on Dec 26, 2006 |
The "Toyota Production System", an icon of process effectiveness, has provided the model for numerous process improvement initiatives. Since Toyota's industry-leading approach to auto production became widely known in the late 80's, GM, Ford and Chrysler have applied ideas drawn from TPS, yet at this point they still trail Toyota, which continues to grow steadily.  In his recent FastCompany article, "No Satisfaction at Toyota," Charles Fishman suggests that the difference is in the underlying understanding of the work: "Toyota's competitiveness is... rooted in an institutional obsession with improvement that Toyota manages to instill in each one of its workers, a pervasive lack of complacency with whatever was accomplished yesterday."  The article, with its interviews and stories, provides an interesting study for those interested in reducing waste in the software development industry.

Lean manufacturing and continuous improvement have been around for more than a quarter-century, but it seems that those implementing these ideas in traditional workplaces still fail to grasp what's really needed to get the productivity leaps they seek.  Fishman quotes Steven J. Spear, a senior lecturer at MIT who has studied Toyota for more than a decade:
The work is really threefold: making cars, making cars better, and teaching everyone how to make cars better. At its Olympian best, Toyota adds one more level: It is always looking to improve the process by which it improves all the other processes.
Every members of a Toyota production team is both an expert in car manufacture and an expert in process improvement. With every employee trained in, and responsible for, hunting out waste the enterprise gains a powerful grassroots tool for improvement.  Kosaku Yamada, chief engineer of the Lexus ES 300 has summed it up: "The real differential between Toyota and other vehicle manufacturers is not the Toyota Production System, but the Toyota Product Development System".

These same ideas underlie the Lean Software Development movement, spearheaded by Mary and Tom Poppendieck, authors of Lean Software Development, An Agile Toolkit, and Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash.  Their books provide thinking tools for building a new kind of team, that improves its own processes incrementally over time.  Like the teams at Toyota, software teams using Lean Thinking have "reflection" built into their processes, time dedicated to rooting out waste and planning improvement, using ideas such as these:
Lean Software Development Principles

Eliminate waste
does not mean throw away all documentation.

Amplify learning
does not mean keep on changing your mind.

Decide as late as possible
does not mean procrastinate.

Deliver as fast as possible
does not mean rush and do sloppy work.

Empower the team
does not mean abandon leadership.

Build integrity in
does not mean big, upfront design.

See the whole
does not mean ignore the details.

--Mary Poppendieck and Tom Poppendieck
Lean Software Development, An Agile Toolkit, p179

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Expert in Process Improvement by Paul Oldfield

I like the idea of having everyone in the team an expert not only in what they do, but also in process improvement. I'm just through explaining to a team that the problem with their process improvement groups is that none of them have any experts in process improvement. Now, if everybody were an expert in process improvement, we would have some confidence that any changes would be changes for the better.

Re: Expert in Process Improvement by Michel Löhr

Having an external process improvement group goes against the lean process. Lean software development gives you a number of principles and tools; these all make the team who is building the product the responsibility (and principles and tools how-to) for constant process/quality improvement. Only "the people on the floor" now best how to improve their work, make them responsible and give them empowerment. That's the lean way.

Having external process groups sounds very CMMI-like and like I said very Lean-unlike.

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