Rene Aagaard of Denmark’s Telenor reflects on John Bicheno’s article Tick-takt: tools in time, published in the April issue of LMJ.
Here’s how Wikipedia, like it or not our go-to website for quick access to information, defines a tool:

Any physical item that can be used to achieve a goal, especially if the item is not consumed in the process, informally the word is also used to describe a procedure or process with a specific purpose.

In the Tick-takt: Tools in time article in the last issue of LMJ, John Bicheno lists some well-known tools used in most lean journeys worldwide, in sectors ranging from manufacturing to the service industry or healthcare. Of course, John has also written the famous book The Lean Toolbox in which you will find a description of the most common tools but also the more complicated ones, like Little’s law. In my opinion, this is the book that everyone working in lean should be using as a reference throughout the journey.

Whenever I meet people who share with me a great passion for lean, they often tell me about the improvements they have accomplished; throughput time reduction, quality improvements, huge cost savings and so on. But when I ask them about how they succeeded, what method they used, which training they were provided, how they designed the KPIs to measure As-Is etc, they often end up talking about VSM, 5S, kanbans, kaizens, all the standard tools, taken straight from a book and copied.

This is all very well – but are the achievements going to be sustainable?
Is there only one way to use a lean tool? How do you know that you are comfortable with a set of tools? Anyone can learn to drive a nail into the plank, but can they perform a carpenter’s work? I doubt it.

To learn how to use a tool often requires hard work, but to get to the point where you can honestly say that you master the use of a tool or a methodology takes years of really hard work, of repeated use of the methodology. It’s of course easier to get the hang of how to facilitate a VSM, or a 5S event, even using the A3s. And certainly a bit more difficult to understand some of the more complex lean tools John mentions in his article: Little’s law or Kingman’s equation.

How long does it take to master a tool or a methodology? In his fantastic book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the “10,000-hour rule”. He claims that it takes about 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to truly master a skill, be it playing the violin, computer programming, or skateboarding.

Gladwell covers several tantalising examples, from the Beatles to Bill Gates, and argues that the biggest factor in their success is not innate talent or blind luck, but rather dedication to their chosen craft. It’s an empowering message, and one that suggests that almost anyone can succeed if they put in the time.

The same applies to being an expert in using lean tools and metholodogies. You need to practice over and over again – personally I have been on this journey for more than a decade and I feel like I have only just begun.

Reflecting of my own lean journey, I have to say I started out as what John Seddon would call “a tool-head” – using the tools blindfolded, with a strong belief in the fact that they would be able to solve any problem I might face. I thought I had found the Holy Grail and wondered why others couldn’t. It seemed so simple.

One comes to a point of the never-ending lean journey when they start to reflect on the use of tools, as mentioned in the article from Jacob Austad in the April issue of Lean Management Journal. I too started to think about what problems the tools I was using more frequently were trying to solve. I began to wonder what issues those who invented the tools were facing.

I struggled for a few years, but my understanding started to grow with the help of John Bicheno when I was attending the MSc in Lean Operations at the Lean Enterprise Research Centre in Cardiff. I became an expert in a series of tools, namely in the ability to understand the problem and then design and twist those tools to fit my needs and solve the problem. Only when you reach that point are you in control of the tools, rather than the other way around.

It’s easy to use each tool successfully and make some savings, but to make a lean implementation successful and results sustainable, tools are not enough. It’s not enough to hire a consultant to drive the change, find the cost savings, and carry out experiments. You need to educate and train the organisation and involve every employee in the use of the methodology and then yes, use the relevant tools in the correct way, making sure they are a part of daily working life and that everybody is trained and practices over and over again.

Here’s a final comment. If an organisation is to successfully use the methodology and the tools, management must change the way it runs the business day after day. It has to empower the employees involved in the problem solving exercise. As Deming said, “let the people who work with the work control and improve the work.” Managers should focus on fixing the system’s conditions, helping employees use the tools to optimise the process in their own areas. Resources must be available to support continuous improvement and therefore sustain results.

One thing is clear, though: without tools I wouldn’t be able to build anything.