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SPIF Tip #11: The DNA of Improvement

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221A consultant recently

told me his perception of Lean Thinking:

  • Womack's 5 principles of Lean Thinking are at the DNA level. It shows how Lean can be replicated in new domains, thus, Lean Thinking.

A lot of people think Womack’s principles (Specify Value, Value Stream, Flow, Pull, and Perfection) are everything you need to eliminate waste and create improvement.


Unfortunately, although “Specify Value” is a good place to start, these are definitely not at “the DNA level.” Instead, they represent the stages of organizational maturity with Lean. Each stage is the culmination of an untold number of brain cyclesrequired among the individuals involved to make the improvements actually happen.

Those brain cycles are the real DNA of any kind of improvement. That’s why Womack himself points to the works of W. Edwards Deming from the very first page of his book (Chapter 1, second paragraph).

Deming’s principles address the way managers must behave if the people working with them are to learn and improve. Ignoring the context of the people involved is why most consulting interventions including lean, six sigma, sales training, and zillions of others don’t stick. They are:

Find a company that has been successful improving, and you’ll find a company that has learned Deming’s lessons, one way or another.

The opposite is true as well. One of the most famous examples Womack refers to in his book, Wiremold, is a case in point. When Wiremold was sold to investors who did not understand Deming’s principles the whole thing died. Fast.

Action item:

Deming’s framework is powerful because it shows that improvement starts at home – between your own ears. How much do you understand about it? How much have you talked you’re your sales team about how to practice it?

Here are some good resources:

  • The New Economics (MIT, 1994), Edwards Deming, Chapter 4, page 92
  • The Improvement Guide, 2nd Ed (Jossey-Bass, 2009), Gerald Langley et al, Chapter 4, page 75
  • The Deming Dimension (SPC Press, 1990), Henry Neave, Chapter 19, pg 259

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