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Systems vs. Tools: A Lean Lesson from The Big Bang Theory

One of the trends I have seen recently is to knock taking a tools-based approach to continuous improvement. The driving thought is that you have to focus on the whole continuous improvement system in order to be successful.

While this is true for an organization to reach top levels of performance, the vast majority of organizations are not ready to take a systemic approach.

Fans of “The Big Bang Theory”, will appreciate my example.

Not to dismiss the importance of systems, but they are built using tools as its components. Granted, getting good at 5S or Standard Work or using pull signals to move work is boring compared to creating a business system. But the truth is that systems, like theory, fall flat without a way to turn them into something real in the gemba.

Despite its widespread acceptance, a fact that is startling to many is that the majority of companies that try some sort of continuous improvement initiative fall short on their journey towards world-class performance. In Industry Week surveys from 2006 and 2007, just over a quarter of companies reported significant progress, despite nearly three quarters of them using Lean.

There are likely multiple reasons, but one of the things I observe over and over again is that companies want to rush forward to the big picture stuff and they forget the basic blocking and tackling. They hear about an A3 Report, and want to dive into it with no understanding of how to collect data or how to do an effective Pareto chart.

My advice is that if you are struggling to see real progress in your company, go back to the basics and evaluate your team’s core skills. That’s not to say you should apply tools with no thought of the big picture, but far too many companies race forward on building the system without having the tools they need to support it in place. If a company doesn’t have the basics down, any effort it puts into running a business system will be wasted.


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