TPM versus tool based Lean

continuous improvement


The past 30 years have seen considerable shifts in focus and in favor of “Operational Excellence”. An organization producing the highest quality with the shortest delivery times relying on the lowest possible amount of inventory is vulnerable to any event that stops it from satisfying a customer requirement. Such unforeseen events are typically attributed to equipment or process failure.

Conditions of minimal inventories combined with high attainment of customer delivery performance set the challenge and started the process that led to the Lean TPM model (McCarthy and Rich 2015).

In this post I will focus on the emergence of this model, in particular the connection with interlinked systems i.e. Toyota’s Production System – TPS. Of particular interest is the interpretation of Lean and TPM approaches in the context of TPS and overall Continuous Improvement.

Well-known authorities in TPM rightfully note: “Lean TPM is a major competitive weapon that supports low-cost production and a market advantage based on cost competitiveness and it also supports a strategy of product and service differentiation by generating an equipment capability where processes are reliable, changed over in minimal time and where it is possible to customize products to order” (McCarthy and Rich 2015).

Lean and TPS

Characterization of a tool biased Lean Approach

In most companies Lean is being implemented on a tactical level only, typically on shop-floor level in the main. In this way their Lean journey begins and most often it also ends there. All too often Lean initiatives are started with a cost-cutting outlook in the form of operational improvements or productivity gains. Research into failed Lean attempts show that ca. 80% of all Lean implementations are aborted at this stage (Roser 2017).

So the question remains as to why companies are failing at this rate with their Lean initiatives?

To begin with, most companies emulate what others do, they follow business trends, listen to consultants or study what competitors do – they simply imitate, without understanding their own needs.

Following this line of thinking, these companies then initiate Lean programs or projects, typically run independently from the day-to-day work by staff functions. As time is of the essence in launching these programs, typically Lean consultants or experts are brought in. Since consultants cost money, targets are defined, deliverables and financial goals set. Consultants pressurized for results, hurriedly resort to the use of Lean tools and methods, rather than time-consuming observations of how the work is done and to study and understand the overall system.

In due course, diagnostics of the state of the company is typically done by cursory observation of specific visuals, tools or methods. In unfortunate cases the consultant’s lack of knowledge is also disguised by the wide application of Lean tools, like excessive data gathering i.e. Value Stream Mapping (VSM) throughout the company. Tools are applied irrespective of its value in the specific environment and reality of the company; adoptions of tools to the actual situation are ignored. As tools proliferate, additional related approaches i.e. Six Sigma are brought in.

As a result, companies on the rocky Lean journey then start to realize that financial results do not materialize as expected or as speedily as desired. Consultants nonetheless are smartly selling their tools progress with impressive numbers, whereas companies are accepting these over actual improvements.

Implementing new Lean KPIs might then be the pinnacle of the program. Managers are accordingly graded on the appearance of Lean in their environment rather than on reality and actual achievements. Visual controls and automated displays throughout may look nice for a customer tour, but are they relevant for the people that do the work? Not so, in my opinion.

Lean maturity model (Hines et al. 2018)

To summarize, I would like to highlight the pitfalls of a tool-based lean implementation. Tools, as useful as they may be, even if applied properly, do not engage employees as change agents per se. Instead, tools often regard employees as objects of change. Physical and process changes are the result of purely tool-based Lean transformations, which in essence often lack “knowing why”.

Frequently lacking the conceptual foundation, Lean tool programs seek improvements, but only as ancillary programs without a guiding compass (Hamilton 2013).

Advantages/Disadvantages of a tool biased Lean Approach

Lean tools such as Andon, Kanban, fixed position stop and throughput status boards were all developed to highlight problems promptly, enabling the responsible person to respond to deviations in process. At the beginning of any Lean journey an appropriate tool may always produce some positive results, simply because in most organizations there is so much of waste to deal with. In short, a Lean tool if used effectively and adapted to the actual situation, maybe suitable to uncover certain problems. Nonetheless, all tools have limits, especially in accentuating actual problems. Hence, it is of crucial importance to understand the capabilities and limitations of each tool (Smalley 2006).

However, tool-based Lean approaches do fail because they do not focus on the crucial elements of improvement: leadership, people, creativity and strong desire. A tools focus is used to solve “a problem”, i.e. Kaizen events or other one-time improvements. This focus generally does not allow one to gain sufficient knowledge to understand the entire system. As a result fundamental business or operational problems, i.e. quality or equipment issues, deficiencies in people development, are not detected early.

Most notable is the shortcoming of any tool to develop the necessary discipline to improve systematically in a sustainable manner. This element marks the essence of continuous improvement; thus, I would argue that a tool-based Lean approach is not viable as it does not focus on the long term improvements, or more so, the improvements of the system itself (Smalley 2006).

Reasons for dominance of the tool biased Lean Approach

The rationale for tool-focused Lean transformations are predominantly rooted in corporate cultures. In most cultures doing and achieving require prompt demonstration of some sort of results tantamounting to improvement in numbers, manifestations in innovations or creating new and viable technology. Larger output, more earnings, less inventory, and physical proof of on-going activities are required to show tangible evidence of achievements. Hence the dominance of a tool biased Lean approach.

Whereas in TPM, tools relate to the philosophy of improvement and help to expose problems or failures; the predominant opinion in most corporations is that tools do solve problems. In addition, there is a tendency to elevate Lean tools (i.e. standardized work, value stream mapping, visual control, etc.) beyond its pragmatic intent; this to the extent where beliefs in tools or methods have become a dominant sphere of activity for a variety of consultants (Smalley 2006).

In reviewing, its practical aim, Lean has become more of a religion than a science, the science of attaining an understanding of a system, gaining knowledge and achieving desired results. It is unfortunate that even at successful companies it is a common procedure to run Lean implementation as a program or project rather than a mindset or culture change journey (Béndek 2016).

The primary reason for popularity of a tool based Lean approach is a result of predominant management styles, focusing on quick gains and visible proof of action. However, this tool based approach has a tendency to focus on symptoms only. Focusing on symptoms deflects from the detection of underlying causes, and thus reduces the effectiveness of the tool itself. In my opinion a better, and more sustainable approach would be to observe and study, and effect remedial measures only as necessary. Given this precondition a Lean Tool focus deflects from the fundamental aims of TPM and holistic Lean management of systems thinking.

Impact of tool biased Lean approaches on the wider adoption of Lean or TPM

Lean management is a philosophy and not merely a collection of tools to improve on material or information flow or to manage problem solving. Unfortunately most leaders have failed to realize this. Increasingly they do not have the patience or diligence to implement Lean as they do not understand its value. Hence the pace of Continuous Improvement is slow; requiring regular attention. What it does not lead to is immediate recognition or quick promotions, nor soaring share prices. Successful Lean management adoption requires qualities that are very rare in people and organizations: Constancy of purpose (Béndek 2016).

Most notably Lean tools limit the approach to only few areas of a corporation. The scope should be widened; if done, the ultimate goals of a Lean enterprise transformation will become clear (Smalley 2006):

  • “Delivering the highest possible quality and service to the customer”
  • “Developing employee potential based on mutual respect and cooperation”
  • “Reducing cost through the elimination of waste in every process”
  • “Building flexible production capability that can respond to changes in the market”

Another drawback is concentrating on applying the tools of Lean in a fragmented manner; this has deflected attention from a holistic approach that would deliver more positive results. If managers hope to understand TPM better they should avoid using tools for the sake of using tools. Rather they should ensure that all efforts are clearly aimed at obtaining improved quality, decreased lead-time and paying attention to achieving sustained customer satisfaction (Smalley 2006).

Sadly, this Lean tool focus has also affected the wider adoption of Lean and TPM in organizations in a manner that it aided in the creation of leaders who manage without understanding how the work is done. To succeed with a wider adoption of Lean or TPM, leaders need to recognize that Lean practices and the work within are inseparable. Developing an understanding of the system by engaging with the people that do the work is most crucial. It is my observation that a tool focused Lean approach that ignores the points raised earlier prevents an organization in recognizing the interrelations between it and TPM sufficiently.

Only by gaining knowledge of the underlying system of work, unique to every organization, a culture of continuous learning and improvement can emerge. This rationale instilled in an organization and, aided by discipline, will then be the foundation to continually repeating the improvement pattern in order to sustainably improve and seek perfection.

OEE and Flow / Throughput

In a manufacturing environment a prominent “best practice” measure in use is Overall Equipment Effectiveness, abbreviated OEE. This measure expresses the relationship as ratio between theoretically possible output and actual output, taking into account availability, performance and achieved quality of resources and other input factors.

OEE per se is no indication of the degree of order fulfillment attainment. Therefore it is imperative to focus on understanding customer demand first before focusing on OEE. Chasing high OEE rates is useless if the company ends-up producing the wrong or inferior products, just faster. In this OEE context it is also important to understand required takt times, as an expression of pace of customer demand.

Taking these parameters into account, the focus lies in balancing the various elements in a production line environment. In this regard, there are two fundamentals that require to be studied:

  • Constraint resource: Focusing on OEE measured by individual process step or machine, may result in wrong conclusions. Most crucial is the observation if a resource is capable of fulfilling the required customer demand, by comparing total cycle times, change-overs and other losses with total accumulated takt time required to satisfy customer demand. Is this actual performance subpar with the required output; this resource represents a constraint in the overall process. Its individual OEE achievement is irrelevant as it is limiting the output required by customers.
  • Uptime: As this constraint resource represents a bottleneck, it is of paramount importance to keep it running at its maximum capacity at all times. This is particularly important in events in which equipment fails or other disruptions occur in e.g. up- or downstream process steps. Due to these resources’ importance, it is crucial to focus on improving its overall availability through preventive or predictive maintenance. In the event of failure, the priority has to be on restarting the resource as quickly as possible to prevent shortfalls in customer deliveries.

Overall losses in a production environment are expressed in various stages inherent to any production environment – in availability, in performance and in quality. To further target improvement activities these losses can be broken down into six big losses (Bicheno and Holweg 2016):

Availability losses:

  • Unplanned losses, set-ups/adjustments required to change over from one product to another product, but also shortages in materials or labor.
  • Downtime/Breakages occurring as unplanned stoppages, caused by equipment failure resulting in unplanned maintenance.

Performance losses:

  • Minor stoppages/idling caused by obstructions or blockages typically resulting in products ejected or fallen.
  • Speed reductions due to training issues of the operator or misalignment of the equipment

Quality losses:

  • Production rejects represented as products not as per specification i.e. damages or scrap
  • Start-up output which needs to be discarded as it does not meet specifications, typically occurring after change-overs, breakdowns or maintenance
OEE and Six Losses

Combining OEE and standard work combination charts presents a very fitting approach to identifying causes of the six losses, in connection with the constrained resource. As I have earlier determined, the focus in such loss investigation is on the resource that is not capable to meet customer demand pace i.e. takt time.

A standard work combination chart is a representation of all routing steps and timings required to complete a full cycle. If this cycle time is in excess of the determined takt time, the point of intervention for improvement activities reveals itself. However, most crucial is the observation of actual cycle times achieved in the real environment. This requires time studies or data from the machine controls (PLCs) allowing accurate time stamp recordings.

Standard work combination chart for product cycle (Roser 2018)

Even with the revelation of disparities between cycle and takt times other systemic loss issues may still be unacknowledged. In my observation, systemic issues typically occur as losses in availability. In most occasions this is caused by non-alignment between the individual elements of the process, expressing itself as non-availability of labor or material at the desired time.

Mapping worker availability, shift and break patterns to machine operating cycles is an ideal instrument to detect equipment inactivity. In any non-automated environment, human availability and intervention are the keys to maximize the utilization of a constraint resource.

Machine loading combination charts (Clements 2018)

Such machine loading combination charts are helpful to detect and improve process flow as it shows both human and machine movement and times attributed.

The recognition of these loss elements in OEE form the foundation of well-directed interventions into improving the overall systems performance, the determinant element being the constraint resource.

A well-established approach in resolving such constraints could be the TOC – Theory of Constraints framework. Its guiding principles are well documented in “The Goal” (Goldratt and Cox 2013).

The four major steps being:

  • Identify the system’s constraints
  • Exploit the system’s constraints, e.g. observations regarding availability losses as above mentioned
  • Subordinate all other resources to this constraint resource – the tortoise and the hare insight
  • Alleviate the systems constraints (e.g. more staff, better maintenance etc.)

Besides the resolution of constraints to improve on resource availability and reduction of performance losses, focus must also be on the Jidoka pillar and the “build-in-quality” concept.

Eliminating the root causes of defects represent the essence of Jidoka and mark the preconditions to the second pillar of TPM, JIT – Just-in-Time, right output at the right time, and in the right amount. Regrettably Jidoka and its underlying concepts receive much less emphasis than JIT.

Approaches to Lean Enterprise Transformation

Comparison of Continuous Improvement (CI) experts versus continuous improvment embedded into managers / work leaders’ roles

To answer this question the fundamental rationale of Continuous Improvement (CI) has to be elaborated. The foundation of CI is rooted in a clearly defined business strategy and leadership behavior and alignment in accordance with defined strategies. This inextricable link is most noticeable in situations where CI programs are failing. The consequence of deficiencies in this field is a failure of management to satisfy four basic principles of employee engagement. These principles are (McCarthy and Rich 2015):

  • “A purpose to believe in – how can I contribute to the success of the organization”
  • “Support to adapt – what do I need to change”
  • “Reinforcement and recognition – standardization and reward when I get it right”
  • “Consistent management role models – all management preaching from the same hymn sheet”

Only if these principles are the driving force and leaders help the teams to find their own solutions according to clearly defined priorities, success is achievable.

Other decisive elements are top-down communication by leaders and the fostering of a culture of collaboration. Only a culture of collaboration combined with the acceptance of failure will encourage staff to engage themselves and question or discuss problems openly. This will help the organization to learn best how to raise standards and improve the business- and production-system.

To state this in another manner, a corporate cultural reality cannot be constituted by a pervasive, orchestrated company-wide CI practice. Drivers for improvement, whether top-down (command and control) leadership, systems (IT), process standards, guidelines or regulations will always remain destructive of whatever CI principles that prevail. It is important to note that exactly for this very reason, Continuous Improvement is never managed, but it must be incorporated into the culture of an organization (Béndek 2016).

In contrast, a centrally led CI initiative bears the risk of creating a dependency culture. In my opinion this approach also ignores the potential of a vast group of potential problem- solvers – each employee. In its essence, employees then wait for others to orchestrate change. This delegation of responsibility ignores a major lever to accelerate the pace of improvement.

To further compare advantages and disadvantages of a centrally led CI approach versus CI as a leadership role, the following table will be of value:

SubjectCI centrally ledCI embedded in leadership role
Goal settingOften visionary, risk of being too distant or vague to engage all levels of organizationAligned to business strategies, more immediate, if focus is set right, living with inefficiencies is no option, barrier removal is key.
Priority settingCompeting crisis attention issue, priority setting and achievement problematic 
Engaging in common vision / willDependent on change agent, often lack of collective will – “have to do it” or “not invented here” attitude.Easier to change the belief system with an engaged leader. A shared belief is necessary to recognize the need for change. Leader is key influencer
Change impactBenefits often disputed or not properly recorded. Risk that deemed benefits for CI are not compelling enough. Often when left alone, staff not motivated enough to press on with changes neededPerceived as more sustainable, however also dependable on stability of leadership and overall corporate culture
Attention to detailOften superficial or too scientificHigh, as intimately aware of day-to-day work
Know-how dependencyHigh, can lead to gridlock if change agents are leaving organizationDepends on know-how, delegation and training skills of leader, but intrinsically more motivation to develop own supervisors and engage every staff member
Relative benefits and drawbacks CI centrally led resp. management embedded (McCarthy and Rich 2015)

To summarize these opposing approaches and before drawing any conclusions, it is required to reflect on the fundamentals of Continuous Improvement and in particular Toyota Production System – TPS, as the key direction indicator and holistic approach in this field.

As Jeffery K. Liker rightfully named his book “The Toyota Way” (Liker 2004) he discusses the principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS). TPS is far more than just a prescribed set of principles, techniques, tools, visuals and measurements – it is a way of thinking, thinking that has to be instilled in the culture & values of a company. Liker groups the 14 principles of the “The Toyota Way” (Liker 2004) in four sections;

  1. “Long-term philosophy”
  2. “The right process will produce the right results”
  3. “Add value to the organization by developing your people and partners”
  4. “Continuously solving root problems drives organizational learning”

Common to all the observations I made is the recognition that TPS cannot be imitated or copied, as any continuous improvement initiative is about developing and understanding and defining principles that are relative to the company’s situation; ultimately it is about understanding that continuous improvement must concern all relevant aspects of an organization.

Secondly, successful implementation relies on developing creative people with capabilities to make structured improvements. Sadly HR slogans such as “A company’s most valuable asset is its employees” remain banalities and are most often not translated into effective people development programs. Because all too often the return of investment in people cannot be measured easily; in addition it appears too costly to the company.

Third, close attention to detail – “understanding how the work works”, is ultimately required in the daily execution of management. Clear awareness and understanding of the real problems combined with a very low tolerance to accept the current condition is the proper starting attitude in any TPM or CI journey.

For all the above-mentioned reasons it can be argued if a centrally led Lean expert team is more beneficial over the embedding of CI into the management job roles. Fundamentally it all comes down to the willingness and ability of an organization to accept that for a transformation towards Continuous Improvement an evolutionary change in mindset and attitude of senior management are required. CI is not “what others do” – it is founded on the following key points (Emiliani 2011):

  • “Continuous Improvement requires respect for the people”
  • “Respect for the people requires having a process focus”
  • “Having process focus requires thinking and analysis”
  • “Thinking and analysis require asking why”
  • “Asking why requires curiosity”
  • “Curiosity requires humility”
  • “Humility means not thinking you know it all”

Therefore, also executives who think they know it all, will establish a culture of dependence, and CI will not be instilled in the DNA of the organization, as people are not encouraged to think, make mistakes, learn and improve – continually.

House of TPM (Zakaria 2018)

As a result leaders should ask themselves as to what should be done to optimize Continuous Improvement in their organization. The answer lies in the following three main focal areas:

Recurrence prevention:

From experience we all know that when band- aid fixes are applied, the problem is solved temporarily, but returns like a boomerang. Therefore, the first focus area is recurrence prevention. To develop, train and apply effective problem- solving methods would be the key to preventing recurrence. To build this culture of “first time right” becomes a prerequisite for sustainable TPM or CI success.

Supervisor development:

All observations made point towards the conclusion that Lean activities will not flourish if the primary drivers are Lean experts, change agents or staff engineers. Promotion of TPM or CI has to be in the hands of line managers and supervisors who have the most responsibilities. Besides having specific, well-aligned objectives, i.e. for quality, cost, delivery, safety, these managers will be instrumental in driving improvement initiatives towards these goals. Such personnel have often experienced improvement initiatives with zero-sum outcome. Not surprisingly their support and participation is largely based on the key principle “respect for the people”. This has to be augmented by dedicated skills development for line managers and supervisors, giving them assurances in their role, enhancing their capabilities necessary to make improvements.

Involving all departments:

Toyota recognized over time that optimizing shop floor processes was not the end. CI reaches into product development, engineering, procurement, human resources, administration and other areas. Most of these areas have a direct impact or affect quality, cost, delivery, lead-times and ultimately customer satisfaction. Focusing on shop floor activities only will not produce sustainable and significant results in the long run.


From this it becomes clear that TPM is not an overnight change program; it takes a consistent way of thinking, management commitment and engagement, a change in operating philosophy, a never ending search for a better way and building quality into the process for success.

To sum up: Constancy of purpose results in realization of evolutionary progress.

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