John Shook is one of the world’s most renowned lean thinkers and the CEO of Massachusetts-based Lean Enterprise Institute. He speaks with Roberto Priolo about coaching, the past and future of lean, and tools.

Roberto Priolo: Lean is often seen as common sense. But if this is true, why don’t all implementations succeed?

John Shook: I don’t know if lean is “common sense” – Ohno said that “common knowledge is all wrong”.  But, I do think lean is “natural”. It’s the most natural way of working. My friend Jeff Liker and I have argued about this point. Jeff thinks lean is essentially “counterintuitive”, or unnatural. And this is why it is so difficult and why so few companies adopt it successfully. My own thinking is that, as organisations grow, they develop bureaucracies, siloes, conflicting objectives that conspire to make it difficult for us to work in natural ways. Most successful startups are lean. I think lean thinking and practice strips away all the crap that gets in the way during our daily work lives so that we can work in ways that are most natural again. Admittedly, since so few companies are deeply successful, perhaps the data do not work in my favour in this argument.

RP: Coaching is another “hot topic” at the moment, to the point that LEI dedicated an entire summit to it last December. What were the main lessons learnt at the event? Why is coaching so important?

JS: A successful lean transformation is dependent upon capability building. The core lean competence that all lean managers require in order to impart development of capabilities is coaching. To communicate the why and how of that is precisely the reason (the problem I was trying to solve) I wrote Managing to Learn. Coaching is rightfully if belatedly a “hot topic” in the lean community.

RP: This issue of LMJ is all about lean tools. While we know tools alone are not the answer to a company’s problems, their correct use is fundamental. Do you see an increased awareness of what the purpose of tools is and of how they can be used correctly and effectively?

JS: Tools will be misused. Hammers tend to look for nails, and along the way they will hit whatever may get in their way. But, in spite of such cautionary dimensions, a well-designed tool is a powerful thing. It is often stated now that lean is not just a set of technical tools. But neither is it just a desirable social setting. Lean is an integrated social-technical system founded in a management philosophy with associated practices.

RP: What is the future of lean? Are we really moving from just doing lean to being lean?

JS: I think it’s fair to say that. That view is an optimistic one, but not unrealistically so. The future of lean thinking will entail the establishment of social-technical systems that steadily improve/innovate to achieve their purpose, which will remain to provide value for customers/society and prosperity for employees/stakeholders.

RP: At the Lean Transformation Summit in Orlando at the beginning of March, GE explained how it is bringing its manufacturing operations from overseas back to the US. Is this what we can expect from companies in the future as lean progresses and more and more organisations make it their way of thinking?

JS: Today’s economy is global. That fact brings with it many challenges but let us not forget that in essence global trade is an overwhelmingly positive thing for the world. At LEI, we prefer the term and concept of “rightshoring” rather than “reshoring”. Not everything will be produced next door; some things are best produced in certain locations in the world. But, over the past 20 or so years, too many companies have done great harm to themselves, their customers, their suppliers, their shareholders, and their communities by configuring their enterprises based on short-sighted, narrowly-focused decisions such as cost of direct labour.

Companies have recently become much smarter in their thinking in this regard, so we are now seeing a correction as many operations are being relocated. That is a welcome correction indeed. However, it is important that we not forget, wherever in the world companies may locate their operations, the important thing is to establish them based on lean thinking and practice.

RP: Your first exposure to what we call lean was in Japan. How has your perception of what you learned at Toyota changed over the years?

JS: Every day I learn something new about what I thought learned 30 years ago in Toyota City. As you stated earlier, “lean” may have as much to do with how to “be” as with what to do. For a long time, I deemphasised any seeming “Japanese” nature of lean thinking. Lately, I find myself thinking a lot about the question of just what is “Japanese” about Japanese manufacturing. And what might that say about what we call lean production?

Similarly, many foundational lean practices had their origins in the United States before finding their way to Japan, yet often could never find root. They could never find fertile soil in the US. What does that observation say about dynamics that could be helpful to us as we endeavour to transform our organisations into successful, sustainable lean systems?

RP: Last year the Lean Enterprise Institute turned 15. What’s next for you guys in Cambridge, Massachusetts?

JS: We have to keep pace with changing circumstances, changing struggles and needs of the lean community and beyond. We will maintain our focus on helping folks solve problems and innovate using lean thinking and practice. And on increasing the number of people who are trying to do that.