Learn to Unhook the Old – Guest Blog Tim McMahon

Today’s guest post is by Tim McMahon of A Lean Journey Blog. Tim’s Lean Journey started about 10 years ago with a career change from R&D to manufacturing. He started this Blog to share lessons along the way and chronicle “My Lean Journey in the Quest for True North”. With so much emphasis on continuous improvement we often miss the true teaching of TPS. Follow him on Twitter @TimALeanJourney


Culture can be defined as the sum of individuals’ work habits within an organization. Culture is often invisible to the members within the group because it is “the way we do things around here.” One implication of culture as a collection of habits and practices is that it has incredible inertia and momentum. Cultural inertia is like a body in motion tending to stay in motion in the same direction unless acted on by an external force.

Conventional habits and practices live on despite changes to layout, material, and information flows. In traditional settings it is seen as important to be doing something tied directly to production. In a lean environment, many practices are related to the disciplined adherence to defined processes. Most of our old habits will not work in our new Lean system. I think Shigeo Shingo said it best, “Improvement usually means doing something that we have never done before.”

Wouldn’t it be simple to just “break” or “kick” these habits? In reality, many habits bring some level of comfort to us because they are routine. Instead, we need to learn to unhook the old “habits”.

When it comes to habits David Mann tells the story of Smokey the Bear’s campfire rules. Douse the fire with water, stir the coals and turn them over, then douse again. Not following the rules of Smokey the Bear you risk the fire restarting itself from the live embers that remain. Cultural habits are very much the same way.

A simple model for improvement could include unhook, change, and re-hook. Where the 3 steps of the process are defined:

Unhook – is the process of learning to change the activities in an organization. Create a situation whereby change is allowed to occur.

Change – this is where the actual improvement is implemented.

Re-hook – is about sustaining the new system by making new connections. Use techniques like standard work, visual control, and visits to the Gemba build new ways of doing things.

I recall an early failure of a knaban from not following this advice. The team was uncomfortable with this new technique of planning so we did not abandon the production schedule. The kanban system was not calling for product because there were items in process further up stream while the production schedule indicated a demand for product. This caused two signals to go to production, the first to stop and the second to go. The team ended up producing when it was not needed. If we had unhooked the production schedule signal for this process when the kanban was implemented this would have prevented this overproduction.

You should not expect the new ways to stick just because people have adhered to them for a day or week. Old habits are waiting for the right condition to reemerge. Remember, nothing worth doing stays done forever without diligence, discipline, and hard work.