Spirit of Buddha – Why do lean implementations fail?

tiffin box

There have been multiple studies about why lean implementations fail. Why is it so hard for organizations to replicate Toyota’s success when implementing its Toyota Production System?

Hajime Oba, a Toyota veteran was once asked why other organizations cannot replicate Toyota’s success. He responded with an analogy that it is like trying to create a Buddha image without having the spirit of Buddha inside. In other words, other companies are trying to create a system of Lean or Toyota Production System that appears the same but does not have “the soul” in it. They recreate the elements including Kanban, JIT, Jidoka, one piece flow etc. but they simply cannot recreate the spirit or the soul. This is a great analogy.

What is the spirit or the soul of lean implementation? In my thinking, this is the culture. The culture is the cement that brings all the elements of the system together, completely aligned in one direction, which is the company’s vision. This is homogenous in nature, meaning that if you take a sample from anywhere in the company (upper management, middle management, etc.), you will get the same vision. The common goal is engrained in everybody’s mind. If you ask the operator on the floor or the CEO, you get the same answer. Everybody has the spirit within them. They do not strive for local optimization. They strive for the system optimization.

This can be also explained, in a way, with correlation and causation. As it is repeated again and again, correlation does not imply causation. There is a high correlation  with the presence of all the tools like Kanban, JIT, Jidoka, Kaizen thinking etc. with many successful companies. However, this does not imply that the success is caused by those tools. In other words, a correlation marked by the presence of the tools does not imply causation for success. What is missing? The culture, or the spirit, or as Mr. Oba put it – the spirit of Buddha. This is like having the body of a car without its engine, the driving force.

This brings to my mind the accomplishments of one amazing organization. This organization performs 400,000+ transactions a day. The total number of employees is approximately 5000. They have not had any strike in their 120+ years of existence. They have a minimal attrition rate. Their error rate is 1 in 16 million (better than six sigma). They do not use any of the new technologies like an ERP system or bar coding. What they do have is a manual coding of all containers. They get a 100% customer satisfaction rating, year after year. This is the Mumbai Dabbawala Association. They are as they call themselves, a flat organization with no silos. The spirit is very much alive in their organization. Their goal is bring the “lunch box” to the customer and back, on a daily basis at the specified time and location. Come rain or shine, traffic or no traffic in one of the most populated cities in the world. Each employee knows their vision and purpose, and works towards that. You can learn about them more here and here or here.

Keep on learning and keep the spirit alive…


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