Making Work As Simple as Possible (but Not Simpler)

I was reminded again this week at how easy it is to make things more complicated than necessary. This is true in so many ways. When asked “What is Lean?” by people who really want to know, it is tempting to explain the entire history from scientific management through Ford and Deming, then onto the Toyota Production System in details. We want them to understand the entire beautiful complexity of Lean.
But teaching Lean manufacturing must be Lean also. This is especially true when the students are not native speakers of English, my preferred teaching language. So this week, the definition of Lean was “Making work as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Traditional engineering and manufacturing management often pursues solutions that are not as simple as possible. Equipment can be 50% larger, 50% faster, and 50% more costly than it needs to be to support one piece flow production paced at takt time and customer pull. This results in imbalance between locally optimized processes.
Optimized processes are separated and managed individually. In factories this means machines that are too fast (faster than the pace of making one at customer demand – takt time) create additional need for space, handling, rework, and isolation of processes resulting in added scheduling points. Complexity ensues.
Lean manufacturing specialists would agree with the “as simple as possible” part I am sure. This means ideally connecting all processes directly, one-to-one, on-demand, in a way that is visual and understandable to almost anyone. What this looks like for most discrete manufacturing processes is one-piece flow.
What I mean by “but Not Simpler” is that one-piece flow can expose ‘hidden’ problems of long changeover times, supplier quality problems, lack of cross training, batch & queue equipment design, etc. These barriers to flow make going to one-piece flow (as simple as possible) right away not practical. Doing so would be “simpler than possible” at this time.
The aim of Kaizen is to demonstrate a business case in a practical, hands-on way. This will drive the changes needed so that these barriers to flow are removed. This often means changing behaviors (local optimization), changing measurements (efficiency, absorption, utilization), and even changing people when they simply refuse to move with the times.
Lean Manufacturing demonstrates 30% to 50% improvement through simple kaizen demonstrations regularly because of this fact. Most traditional manufacturing processes are not as simple as they possibly can be. Lean makes work simpler by bringing processes as close to one-piece flow as possible (but not closer).
Albert Einstein said that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. He was talking about the construction of the universe but the same principle applies in designing factory operations, information systems, and business processes in general.