Lean Manufacturing

Bill and Barry Grapple with the Lean Manufacturing Elephant

By Jon Miller Published on April 25th, 2006

Part of what started me thinking about Lean manufacturing, kaizen and the role of Industrial Engineering and Human Resource Development was an exchange on one of my favorite bloggers a reader a few weeks ago.
There were two themes in this exchange which I found most interesting. The first was “Does management get handed down from one generation to the next?” Blogger Bill Waddell insisted that organizations don’t transfer management knowledge and reader Barry Huff insisted that they do. The second concerned the difference between Ford and Toyota systems, where Bill took the position that Toyota added very little to the Ford operating system other than kanban and SMED, while Barry took the position that Toyota’s quality approach in the form of jidoka was a unique innovation.
I saw this as another example of the Industrial Engineering (IE) vs. Human Resource Development (HRD) question for Lean manufacturing. I don’t want to box in either of these men into categories such as IE or HRD, but it they are taking Polar opposite positions on matters of Lean manufacturing that are more or less technical versus human in nature.
Industrial Engineering and implementing the best available operating system in your company (TPS) is essential for long-term success. Almost no amount of kaizen or good intentions will save you if you are married to an MRP-driven, batch & queue operation with traditional accounting practices. But IE alone is not sufficient for a Lean enterprise transformation.
Companies that implement Lean manufacturing yet fail to sustain their improvement or change the culture tend to be IE-focused, neglecting the HRD component of giving their people the education in problem solving, making decisions based on facts, and going to gemba to observe what is actually happening. Much the same can be said for six sigma focused initiatives.
Part of the role of HRD within a Lean manufacturing organization is to transfer management, production engineering and process control technology and knowledge to the next generation of leaders. Not only that, it is to keep this knowledge current and fresh even in the face of high employee turnover. The technical expertise may reside the minds of the experts, but how to maintain and transfer this knowledge is a key HRD role.
Today most of the transformational work of Industrial Engineering at Toyota has been done and the focus of kaizen at Toyota is on HRD. Granted there is a small team of experts refining and advancing their production system, and there are perhaps thousands of engineers taking cost out at the design level, but for the hundreds of thousands of non-technical people, HRD is they main connection to kaizen. The training at the management level on the use of A3 report problem solving and communication as well as the insistence that employees at all levels generate 1 implemented kaizen idea per month are examples of this.
The Jidoka idea is a good example of the potential risks of taking either the HRD or IE position but not both. Built-in quality can be seen from an engineering viewpoint as having error proofing devices, testing and checking processes, sensors, etc. to make sure defects are not created or passed on. This is absolutely essential. Asking people to be more careful does not work in preventing errors.
The true genius of Jidoka lies in the ability for the process to stop autonomously when an error occurs. “Intelligent Automation” or “Automation with a Human Touch” is how it is described at Toyota. If it is a manual process people stop the process. People need to be trained and ready to stop the process when an error occurs or there is risk of an error. This is very different from relying on downstream inspection processes that have been designed in.
Just in Time also must essentially blend IE and HRD aspects. Companies struggle or fail to implement Lean when they see JIT as only one thing, such as flow or where to carry inventory buffers. It is much more than that, including how to hire and cross-train people to be multi skilled, how material are designed, purchased, and lots are sized for one piece through SMED, how machines are right-sized in order to produce one-piece at takt using 3P, how quality is built-in so the lack of buffer does not create constant line stops due to poor quality, and only incidentally how they are placed in sequence so flow and pull becomes easier. When people specialize in creating cells or treating Lean manufacturing / JIT as primarily an IE exercise, they have only examined a part of the elephant.
As we look at the bigger picture and consider better ways to teach and do kaizen to make sure Lean transformations area sustained, sometimes we can be like the blind wise men describing an elephant. One wise man feels the trunk and says “it is a snake” another feels the ear and says “it is a leaf” another feels the leg and says “it is a tree”, etc. It does not change the fact that these are wise men, or that their research and observations are very valuable. We can only describe the elephant by touch (our expertise, or the area we are closest to) and once we think we are able to describe a part of the elephant very accurately we may lose interest in hearing the perspectives of the other wise men touching another part of the elephant.
One of these wise men is a good friend of ours who is a production control consultant. He sees everything as a material control problem, and he has the solutions. He is a very successful consultant, earning three quarters of a million dollars per year working for himself. He tells people how to integrate MRP with JIT. He is a trained Industrial Engineer, and very smart. But when people don’t get it, he doesn’t understand why. He’s a great if you want a bucket of fish, but not if you want to learn to fish for yourself.
One of the companies we like to visit in Japan literally turned their company around with the help of a consultant from a money losing and shrinking company to a profitable and growing company, through a fanatical application of 3S (five S minus two). It was a matter of people agreeing on what was needed and what was not needed, where everything should be located, and how things should be labeled. Everything was placed on wheels. Everyone sorts, straightens and sweeps every day. From an Industrial Engineering standpoint, they had some one-piece flow, SMED and kanban prior to the consultant arriving. But not until the human factor was made primary were they able to turn their business around and sustain the gains.
The lesson here is that taken to a high degree of completion, implementing even just one piece of the Lean manufacturing can take you a lot farther than implementing all of the Lean tools half way, and not providing the Human Resource Development to support this new operating system. It’s as if by cracking the genetic code from the elephant’s ear you are able to genetically describe the whole elephant.
The HRD part is not only a question of how to train the workforce to be problem solvers, supervisors to be coaches, etc. It is a more general issue of how do we train people to understand their operating system (TPS created through Industrial Engineering, accounting systems, management systems, etc) so that they can be empowered to improve it as well as solve problems as they occur within that system. This learning often starts at the gemba, and must spread to every corner of the organization from bottom to top.

  1. Dr. K.V.S.S. Narayana Rao

    July 26, 2007 - 10:25 pm

    Industrial engineers do HRD. My definition of IE is
    “Industrial Engineering is Human Effort Engineering. It is an engineering discipline that deals with the design of human effort in all occupations: agricultural, manufacturing and service. The objectives of Industrial Engineering are optimization of productivity of work-systems and occupational comfort, health, safety and income of persons involved.” (Narayana Rao, Definition of Industrial Engineering: Suggested Modification, Udyog Pragati, Oct-Dec 2006, pp. 1-4.)

  2. Jon

    July 26, 2007 - 11:08 pm

    Thank you for your comment Dr. Rao. Industrial Engineers are certainly concerned with human systems, and making processes better for people, but at least in their traditional role I would hardly say that they do Human Resource Development, in the sense that they nurture the skills and capabilities of people.
    “Design of the human effort” is important but it is altogether something different from teaching people how to function effectively within that design, and to think of how to improve it, which is where HRD comes in.

  3. Dr. K.V.S.S. Narayana Rao

    March 22, 2009 - 12:57 am

    It is interesting to come back to this page. I just presented a paper on cooperation between IE and HRM departments. While HRM has the formal responsibility of conducting training programs, every one knows that line managers have the responsibility to train and develop their subordinates. Similarly, industrial engineers who design methods have a responsibility to develop the operators to use advanced methods. Nowadays, it is emphasized in texts also that certain functions are carried on by many in the organization even though they are not part of a department that carries that name. Many persons in the company are undertaking marketing function even though they are not part of marketing department. Of course when an initiative comes from a specific department, they can claim the credit to be the initiators in their company. But for any initiative to be successful they have to involve many others and share the credit with them.

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