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Lean Reflections – Why Looking Back can be Key to Looking Forwards

Every three years the Lean Certification granted to me by the Society for Manufacturing Engineers (SME) comes up for re-certification.

Part of the certification process involves recording the lean and learning activities I have participated in or led over the three year period. The other part is to write a reflection document, explaining what I have learned, how my approach has or has not changed and what challenges I now face in the future and how I will overcome them.

It’s the kind of process that we always dread on the horizon and in the third year it always looms in the distance, getting closer and closer. Eventually, putting it off longer will result in a lack of recertification so it always ends up getting planned in and I get started.

Inevitably, as soon as I start the process I am exceedingly glad that I did. Looking back over three years of dedicated lean activities always reminds me how far I’ve come as well as how far there is yet to go. I remember where I was mentally, how I thought about things then and how I think about them now.

For example, three years ago I was focused on pull production, on the creation of flow and the removal of obstacles. My lean activities were all about reducing lead-time and teaching the philosophies of pull and one piece flow. In the early stages of our lean cultural transformation in our company, we were focused on just getting people involved in improvement and our later learnings about daily improvement were far in the future.

By looking back, I can clearly see my own progression. Not long after this pull production phase, I became fascinated by the enigmatic and elusive ‘Toyota Culture’. Why were they so successful? What was the secret sauce because tools will only take you so far. It’s humbling to look back to a time before I had spent two years deeply studying lean culture. It’s hard to believe there was a time where I was not focused on ‘daily improvement’ and ‘business as usual’ lean. In 2017, I had not met Paul Akers, who changed my perspective on daily lean or Billy Taylor, who inspired me to ‘make people visible’.

By looking back, I can also see beginnings. I can see my first blog post on The Lean Minimalist. I can see the many posts after that as I began to share my own learnings with those who were just starting out. By sharing those learnings, I learned even more in the process. My understanding of lean began to become more solidified, more mature and more altruistic. I can see when I began to mentor others in lean philosophy, to share my knowledge and through doing this, gain knowledge in return.

I can also see endings and slow downs in activity. I can see the effect that the Covid-19 pandemic and lock downs had on training, because in 2020, delivering training in lean to our team has been almost impossible. I can see less focused projects, because in the aftermath of the lockdown here, production needs have far exceeded capacity. Improvements happened, because they had to happen but not in the strategic, structured way we had planned for them. Other strategic improvements had to go by the wayside.

Looking backwards has given me the boost to move forwards. I can see where success has been achieved, where more of the same is needed and where systems will need work to ensure that we keep moving forwards.

I am inspired to use what I have learned from reflecting to forge the best path forwards. In three years, I will be excited to look back and see how far I have gone.

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