One of my favorite brain teasers when giving Lean training is the question of whether having a large order backlog is a good thing or not. It is rare for anyone to immediately say that it is a bad thing, and this is why it is such an illuminating example of how to think Lean.
Many companies that are doing well like to tell how their order backlog has increased and is at a high level. This is commonly seen as a sign of success, but it is not necessarily so. To see why this is so, we need to look at the issue from the point of view of both the company and the customer.
Simplification is often useful in life, but taking a very straightforward approach can also prevent us from seeing and discussing many of the options that are available. In practice, this often boils down to the ease with which we succumb to using the words “have to” and “cannot” in our daily lives.
I do not claim that there are never situations where people have to do something or cannot do something. However, especially in the domain of business operations, these situations are nowhere near as prevalent as the common use of these terms implies.
There are probably quite a few misconceptions regarding Lean, and this state is not made any easier by the fact that there are many ways to apply Lean nor by the fact that many ideologies have borrowed the name and some tools from Lean (such as Lean Six Sigma).
One of my pet peeves is the misconception that Lean is about improvement, but not about innovation. I see how this misconception is easy to arrive at, as the most common tools people borrow from Lean focus on waste elimination or value stream mapping and are often associated with iterative improvement of the process in small steps.
However, Lean itself has innovation at its very core, and in this post I aim to elaborate on that a little bit more with the help of an analogy.