Lean ManufacturingThe Dark Side of Lean

Lean Production Does Not Respect People

By Jon Miller Published on May 10th, 2006

Many of those exposing the dark side of Lean production take aim at “Lean production” as defined in the book The Machine that Changed the World. This book compares the Japanese and U.S. automotive industries and identifies best practices. It claims that it is inevitable that all manufacturing eventually become Lean manufacturing.
Some find this prospect, and the claim that Lean is good for people, hard to accept. An essay by Christian Berggren titled Lean Production: the End of History? is a well-reasoned rebuttal of some of the central claims made in The Machine that Changed the World.
As an example of how Lean production does not respect people, Mr. Berggren compares the pace of work at General Motors and at Japanese transplant factories:
With the help of kaizen all slack is eliminated. In the GM car factories, even those that have achieved high productivity and quality like Buick City, the work pace is relatively relaxed. People have time to talk to visitors and do some reading at their workstations. These things are unthinkable at Japanese transplants. According to their view, if workers are occasionally able to read a magazine at work, that does not only signify waste (muda), but also that workers will lack the motive force to continually make proposals for improvements.
Lean production does not respect people’s right to talk to visitors and do some reading at work stations. Taking broader aim at the blind spots in The Machine that Changed the World Mr. Berggren points out:
The book has been sharply criticised by JAW on account of the authors’ total neglect of the long working hours Japanese employees are forced to work year after year. The just-in-time production system has also been criticized for its detrimental social effects, and has been blamed for traffic congestion, labour problems and pollution.
Being a manufacturing consultant and having seen lines run at dangerously fast line speeds of less than 10 seconds all over the world, I was puzzled by Darius Mehri’s characterization of the line speed at Nizumi and Toyota in the 60 second range as being “very fast” in his book Notes from Toyota-land. But I think people working at fast line speeds may be the appropriate metaphor for the dangers of TPS.
The Toyota Production System is known for being fragile. If machines break, the line stops. If materials do not arrive just in time, the line stops. If there is a defect, the line stops. This is why kaizen is important and why people at Toyota work furiously on problem solving, root cause countermeasures, and shoring up their system against future breaks. Without this, a “fake” or “display” Lean manufacturing can not only hurt the performance of a company, it can hurt people. Lean production is fragile, as people are.
It is very easy to implement “display Lean” with all of the surface similarities but not the supporting human resource development and management problem solving disciplines built in. Even when it does have these things, a Lean workplace is fraught with tension. Ideally it should be a healthy tension that focuses the mind on solving problems and serving the customer. When people lack respect between one another, or when working conditions do not meet the basic needs of people this tension becomes unhealthy.
If Lean production does not respect peope, improvement professionals may need to recognize that working in a Lean enterprise is not for everybody. I can think of several specific examples of this.
In a Lean workplace the work you do will be watched while the process is studied for the sake of kaizen. Anyone who has watched a worker slow down in the presence of a stopwatch knows that without respect for people, kaizen does not work. In the book Notes from Toyota-land the factory worker from Africa named Kofi is in a rage one day because a video camera was set up in the Japanese factory to tape him working, presumably to make him work faster. He felt that Lean production did not respect him, yet being videotaped was part of his job description as an employee at a Toyota group company.
In a Lean workplace you will be in an open, collaborative environment constantly being challenged (pressured) to do better. An anonymous reader on our blog last week posted a comment that expressed horror at my advocating a Lean office layout for engineers. The stress of constantly being monitored would be too much for this person. This person could not work in a Lean office.
This may be similar to a woman in our office who is terrified of giving presentations or speeches. She is otherwise completely functional and performs her job well. But she could not work as a public speaker, Lean or otherwise. A Lean workplace has certain requirements, just as public speaking does.
I will give a personal example of another reason that a Lean workplace does not respect people. At a small, money-losing furniture manufacturer in Seattle about 7 years ago we were asked to help implement Lean manufacturing and help turn them around financially. We set to work, and mid-way through the first week they lost one of their builders. He was young, skilled, and quiet but polite. Prior to our arrival and Lean manufacturing being introduced he had worked happily hidden behind his fortress of work in process inventory of entertainment centers.
Working now in the open (in absolutely safer, cleaner and more ergonomic working conditions) in close proximity to the upstream and downstream process, he had a breakdown. It turns out he was a refugee from a Middle Eastern country. As a child he had watched members of his family being killed during a war. He needed the protection of losing himself in his work, in isolation. Lean production did not respect this.
Shortly after this incident, this company fired Gemba. Was it us or was it the product? We never asked, but it was probably both. Lean manufacturing was not for some of their people, and as consultants we failed to see this.
Lean production does not respect people. Of course it doesn’t. Production systems do not have feelings or the ability to respect human beings. Production systems are a set of rules and principles that describe effective ways to make money based on following certain laws of physics and economics.
But Lean is not capable of being mean either, unlike people are. When people criticize Lean production as “lean and mean” what they are really saying is that the people in charge of implementing Lean care less about the livelihoods of the workers as they do for themselves. This is one side of human nature. Lean production used by people who care less about people can be brutal while Lean production used by people who care about people can be a wonderful thing.
Tomorrow: Interview with Darius Mehri, Author of Notes from Toyota-land

  1. Bill Waddell

    May 10, 2006 - 10:16 pm

    Jon, you know that I have no hesitation in blasting Toyota when I think it is warranted, but guys like Christian Berggren are way out of their league in when they try to make the leap from academia to a real, live, noisy, loud factory.
    Academics need to stick to theory. The reality of a factory is something he cannot possibly understand. To even suggest that GM or Ford has a better ‘people’ system because people can read on the job is proof enough of just how far removed from reality he is.
    It seems quite obvious that a Toyota employee who works hard, makes a decent living and enjoys a very high level of job security has been treated with far more respect than the GM employee who read and socialized his employer to the verge of bankruptcy and himself to the unemployment line.

  2. Mark Graban

    May 11, 2006 - 4:40 am

    Reading the author’s intro, “…JIT principles are criticised both by unions and environmentalists”…. you’re really stretching me to take the time to read the rest of this. If unions and environmentalists are against it, this “lean” must be a good thing, I’d assume.

  3. Mark Graban

    May 11, 2006 - 5:26 am

    So I forced myself to read the article. It’s hardly “well reasoned” as you say, Jon. The statistics and claims in there were hardly well-documented either. I agree with Bill, to say it is a “right” to read a magazine on the job is ridiculous. I used to work at a GM plant where the work environment was so “relaxed” that many workers thought it was their “right” to sleep on the job.
    However, I do agree with your concluding point Jon, that “lean” isn’t mean. People can be mean. “Lean” is implemented 10 different ways in 10 different plants… it all depends on the management, dare I say leadership, that is involved. I’ve see lean be used as a wonderful tool for all involved. I’ve also seen different management mis-use “lean” in a way that wasn’t good for anybody.
    I admire you Jon for tackling articles that take a negative view of lean. But, I have to question why you would post it, as a lean consultant. I wouldn’t expect the Texas Beef Council to take an article from the local PETA organization about Mad Cow Disease and then post it on the Beef Council website as “well reasoned.”

  4. Jon Miller

    May 11, 2006 - 5:49 am

    Thanks for the comments, and for taking the time to read both the post and the linked article.
    I think the Berggren article is well-reasoned. Whether I agree with it is another matter.
    Since all views are partial, seeing one extreme consider the arguments of another extreme is a step toward greater understanding. If the Texas Beef Council did post a PETA article on Mad Cow, I might be moved to eat more beef.
    I introduce divergent views on Lean and stretch the pro-Lean camp to read them for the same reason.

  5. Eric H

    May 11, 2006 - 6:42 pm

    I’m not sure Berggren even read the Womack et al books. He goes on at length about how Toyota has an unfair advantage because they build the machines for manufacture, which (1) was something I recall having been covered in one of those books, and (2) duh – that’s part of the advantage and it came about from relentless kaizen, a practice/philosophy which Berggren seems to have not appreciated.
    He also talks about how they have an unfair advantage because they screen their employees (and suppliers) very, very well. What exactly prevents Ford and GM from doing that? He says that Lean Production makes management dependent on that screened workforce, which, if true, only shows that the labor force has more power in those factories. So they emphasize human development, and then they depend on it? Huh! Another one of those mysterious contradictions that he keeps alluding to but never really examining. And yet another: the unions all seem to be against nonunionized but empowered workers? Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. But, no point in examining that any further, Berggren is off after another anecdotal factoid.
    I’m with Mark on this – thanks for pointing it out, but I wouldn’t characterize it as well-reasoned. Reasoned, maybe. Each time he started an interesting topic, he abandoned it before he had to do any uncomfortable self-examination and/or self-criticism. For example, I would have liked to see more examination of the “sweeping assertions” of which Womack et al are definitely guilty, and I would have liked to have seen Berggren grapple with whether or not auto manufacture is or is not a “premier industrial sector”. Volume is both for and against it as he argues (starts to, anyhow), but what about other aspects, like variety, part count, regulatory oversight, intense competition, consumer and professional scrutiny, level of skill in designing and manufacturing, investment in R&D (Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, and GM were ranked #1, 2, 3, and 5 in R&D spending in 2004), etc. I’d say many of those make it a premier sector, but the volume makes it easy to justify those. What about the same measures for, say, machine tools, ICs, medical equipment, or custom prosthetics? And what do their best practices look like?

  6. Mark Graban

    May 15, 2006 - 7:51 pm

    I think Toyota has had the luxury of being super selective in the U.S. 1) because they are newer here than GM and Ford and 2) they want workers for more than their backs and arms.
    When I worked at GM, a lot of the UAW guys had been hired in the late 50’s and early 60’s, well before I was born. I think back then 1) labor was tight and GM took who they could get 2) the UAW probably promoting hiring family and nepotism and 3) GM didn’t respect workers heads…. they told them “check your brain at the door.”
    And “lean does not respect people?” HA! Let’s write 10 articles on how mass production does not respect people please.
    Anyway, when GM and Toyota reopened the Fremont plant as NUMMI, they hired UAW workers who had been there before. It’s just that they knew they would need fewer of them and took the opportunity to be selective. Screening for problem solving and team skills, I don’t see what is wrong with that. You can’t have “I’ll do it my way, it works for me” personality types in a lean system. People have to be willing to play within the rules of standard work, yet be willing to help improve it via kaizen.
    So it probably is an unfair advantage that Toyota and the transplants get to select the best of the best applicants.
    But shame on GM and Ford for not respecting people long ago. That made the bed that they now lie in.

  7. Mark Graban

    May 15, 2006 - 7:54 pm

    Jon – I don’t know if this was intentional genius on your part or not. When you google the phrase lean does not respect people, this posting comes up #1 in the results.
    Maybe you’re suckering in the readers who search for that phrase, then they’ll read the rest of your excellent site that talks about the benefits of lean production, lean manufacturing, lean enterprise, etc.??

  8. Jon Miller

    May 15, 2006 - 8:42 pm

    You have a devious mind Mark. Sadly, I can’t take credit for such a brilliant strategem. It does make one think about the uses of search engines though, doesn’t it?

  9. Don M.

    May 21, 2006 - 3:48 pm

    I have just come across this site and started to briefly review some of these posts and everything …… You are doing a great service, Please keep showing the extremes of the spectrum … without the study where would the knowledge be expanded.

  10. Jon Miller

    May 31, 2006 - 6:34 pm

    Thanks for reading. I hope you find something here that makes it easier to do kaizen and to teach others how to do kaizen.

  11. Jim Couttie

    August 28, 2006 - 9:09 pm

    The important point that hasn’t been highlighted is that Berggen’s paper dates from 1991 – 15 years ago!
    No doubt a lot has changed in the US auto industry since 1991 and would impact the current relevance of his observations.
    As my knowledge is mainly limited to the auto industry here in Australia, I would be interested to see some comment on whether Berggen’s position was more relevent when he wrote the paper.
    I would also wonder if the transplants have continued to evolve and adapt to the US and whether it has impacted their competitiveness.


    October 7, 2006 - 7:30 am

    Having worked in the aereospace industry for the past 14 years 7 of which have been under Lean/ kaizen /C.S.I what ever name you like to call it .I can only say if not implemented properly all it does is alienate the shop floor from the management .
    Why is it the shop floor takes the brunt of lean implementation and non productive areas escape the lean machine .If the management,engineers and office staff are not leaned how can it ever work properly.The shop floor is not the only place company’s can work smarter.
    The amount of time wasted attending kaizen events and meetings about how we can work smarter to tackle the 7 wastes is unbelievable. when will managers just manage and let the work force eh… work then may be there would be no need for lean, ever heard of team work ?

  13. Cynthia Reyes

    August 12, 2010 - 8:57 pm

    Jon, I think LEAN is what got Toyota where they are today. I work for a medical company that uses LEAN. I don’t agree that this program works for all manufacturing places. Especially ones that make medical devices or medicines. You can’t cut corners on jobs that could cause death or illness because companies want to “cut the fat”, or in my job do more work with less people. Not in certain fields of work is this a good idea. What do you think?

  14. Jon

    August 12, 2010 - 10:46 pm

    Hi Cynthia
    I think lean does apply everywhere. It is not about cutting corners. It is about thinking through the problems we have and putting countermeasures in place. In a hospital there are medical errors. Lean is helping to address these to improve patient safety and reduce costs, not endangering people.

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