How to Give Lean Manufacturing a Bad Name

One way that is almost guaranteed to stop a Lean manufacturing effort in its tracks is for management to announce that Lean manufacturing will be used to eliminate jobs. It’s hard to believe that anyone still does this, but the pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck said this in the January 12, 2006 Wilson Daily Times article. The article cites a press release announcing 97 job cuts out of a total of 360 of the Wilson, North Carolina factory, and proceeds to drop these gems:
The Wilson plant will be Merck’s first North American site to transition to a lean manufacturing system.
Here I wince.
The new business system should help further cost reduction and increase efficiency.
Or maybe not, if Lean manufacturing has anything to do with involving the people who work this system. And finally:
Determining job cuts are part of the lean manufacturing system aimed at streamlining.
Here my jaw drops. Whoever wrote the press release could not have chosen better words to blacken the reputation of Lean manufacturing. Oh you poor Merck Lean Specialists with your heads in your hands after reading this article, my heart goes out to you.
Merck, according to their catchy motto, is “Where patients come first”. There’s nothing wrong with putting patients (customers) first. That’s what keeps you in business. I guess shareholders come second, and employees come last.
You wouldn’t guess this from reading the corporate identity they put forward. Here is a paragraph from Merck’s Corporate Responsibility statement:
At Merck, our business is discovering, developing and delivering novel medicines and vaccines that can make a difference in people’s lives. But our mission also entails something more. As a Company, we seek to maintain high ethical standards and a culture that values honesty, integrity and transparency in all that we do. Company decisions are driven by what is right for patients. And we are committed to our employees, to the environment in which we live and to the communities we serve worldwide.
I’ll give Merck points for honesty and transparency. They certainly aren’t trying to fool anyone with that press release.
The sub-section titled Valuing Our Employees starts out “Our employees are our single greatest asset.” Whoever wrote the press release must have missed this part of the employee orientation.
I don’t have enough information to second-guess Merck’s decision to lay off a quarter of their workers at their Wilson, North Carolina factory. In the article the plant manager does call the layoffs “difficult decisions” yet necessary to remain competitive. Saying that the layoffs are made possible by Lean manufacturing does not demonstrate the type of good thinking we have come to expect from Merck, a company full of smart people.
At best, Merck’s characterization of Lean manufacturing is a bad gaffe. At worst, it is cynical PR spin designed to send a message to Wall Street. In either case it shows a complete lack of respect for people.

5 Comments

  1. Jason Snaggs

    January 19, 2006 - 9:19 am

    Lean already has a bad Name – Unfortunately there are many companies out there that are like Merck! I would say that the majority I have encountered see lean as a headcount reduction exercise primarily with the focus “cutting” costs while at the same time expounding the value of their employees, in doing so they make the lean practioneers job more difficult.
    It is time for more practioneers and training providers to emphasize the true value of Lean to businesses and the vital role and value add of employees in being successful.

  2. Joe

    April 21, 2006 - 11:02 pm

    Yet another company using lean as a means of cutting staff…….The British Airports Authority at Gatwick…..Sad world we live in…….Lean,gets a bad name again

  3. Anonymous

    February 24, 2010 - 8:22 am

    I beg to differ with your comments and no disrespect for Lean Manufacturing; but the outplacement process at Merck was one of the most difficult tasks that the Leaders of that facility had to conduct; and it was done with nothing less than ensuring dignity and respect for those employees impacted – layoffs are very difficult and Merck does show that they value their employees for the most part. Did every aspect of the process maintain that same value added manner — probably not, but overall the employees were treated well. I can provide you with examples of a poorly administered outplacement process.