What I Learned from a Marxist about Lean Manufacturing

While on a recent business trip to New York City I met with an old friend of mine who does human rights work. He told me a story of how he persuaded policy makers to take a position on issues of human rights by issuing statements that he knew were more extreme or radical than what the policy makers would endorse. My friend is a bit of a Marxist. He told me this tactic is similar to what is called taking the “advanced position” found in Marxist literature.
The policy maker may know that the arguments made by the activist is morally and factually correct, but be unable to take the position of my friend’s organization for political reasons. The policy maker will support the position but to a lesser degree than the human rights activist initially presents. Because my friend’s position was more extreme, or in advance of what his actual short term objectives were, the less advanced position taken by the policy maker was still sufficient.
This reminded me of my teachers from Shingijutsu and the “extreme” or advanced positions they would take in the early days of teaching TPS and kaizen at American companies. For example, when faced with converting a hard-edged east coast union aerospace machine shop from one-man, one-machine environemnt (complete with the CNC operator reading the newspaper while the spindle turns) to multi-process handling, standard work, visual management, and stop the line authority, the sensei would typically take the “advanced position” to the shock and horror of the middle management busy guarding their turf.
A more reasonable proposal such as “let’s connect the process and create a one piece flow cell” would have been too easy to bury in objections, foot dragging, or analysis paralysis. By taking the “advanced position’ the sensei could concede things like standing work or immediate and full implementation of standard work and still have one piece flow and multi process handling basic visual management implemented by the end of the kaizen week. The other elements were certainly necessary to sustain kaizen long-term but in the short term it was enough to show people that big change was possible.
A more recent personal example comes from a SMED project. The initial goal was to reduce changeover times of more than 12 hours to half of that. First I need to explain that SMED stands for Single Minute Exchange of Dies. Not double digits, and certainly not hours.
Whenever you see a changeover that is taking double digit hours, you can be certain that there is:
1) A lot of “air” (time when nothing is happening) in the changeover
2) A large number of changeover activities and an extreme lack of coordination
3) Or some combination of both
So as a responsible Lean consultant I had to point out that single minute changeover was possible. As a result of the kaizenevent, 80% changeover reduction was achieved. Not single minutes yet, but more than they believed possible.
When people have little experience with Lean manufacturing and what you can accomplish during kaizen, their immediate reaction to many of the claims made by the Lean consultant is “inconceivable” or “impossible”. They think we are crazy. This is the same whether we claim to cut the 12 hour changeover to 3 hours, 1 hour or 9 minutes. In each case we must help them make the mental journey as follows:
Inconceivable –> conceivable but impossible –> possible but extremely difficult –> difficult but doable –> done.
If you are going to do that, you might as well tell them what’s really possible through a successful TPS implementation. There’s no need to exaggerate since there are plenty of benchmarks for the “advanced position” of Lean.