Five Practical Ways to Stay on the Sunny Side of Lean

It’s not easy to read so much about the dark side of Lean. I’ve received e-mails this week from readers who are upset that I would post attacks on Lean manufacturing and kaizen. It’s no fun to learn terrible things about your favorite production system, but growth and learning is not always fun.
Cognitive dissonance is a pair of words used to describe the feeling you get when you have an experience or see evidence that challenges a strongly held belief. The emotional part of your mind fights the rational mind presenting the new information, saying “that can’t be right”. Depending on whether emotion or rationality wins, people either deny the new evidence or come to a new understanding of their belief.
My own experiences with Lean manufacturing and kaizen have been mostly positive. Reflecting on the dark side of Lean this week has made me realize there are at least five practical ways to stay on the sunny side of Lean:
1. Establish basic conditions of a humane workplace.
Before cutting out the slack to increasing the velocity of your business, make sure that safety, stability, and humane working conditions are there first. Just like you can’t ask a patient with a broken leg or breathing problems to run a marathon, you need to take steps to repair the basic conditions. Make sure Lean efforts are built on respect and trust between people. When belt-tightening and so-called “Lean production” is imposed on people who are already in duress, the result can be a disaster. Do this even if you are not implementing Lean.
2. Go see others who are doing Lean extraordinarily well.
Visit a companies that are doing Lean right. No single company will be doing everything right so visit several so that you get as complete a picture as possible. Learn both from what they are doing well and where they are struggling. In many ways Toyota and their suppliers are the benchmark and much can be learned from them.
3. Link Lean to company growth.
Know how Lean enables revenue growth for your organization. If your organization is facing decreasing revenues, and if you can not find a way to link Lean to company growth, your may have more urgent issues to focus on than Lean implementation. Never link Lean to the elimination of jobs or the reduction of job security. Make a clear statement that “Lean does not mean Less Employees Are Needed” and stick by it.
4. Link Lean to personal growth.
In the end people will always tune into radio station WIIFM – “What’s In It For Me?” The goal of most for-profit companies is not to perpetually increase salaries and benefits for workers, but the goal of a worker is to maintain and increase their own well-being and wealth. This conflict needs to be addressed by creating a workplace that allows people to learn, grow and become more valuable as problem solvers, innovators and providers of great customer experiences so that their skills are always increasing and in demand.
5. Find another word for Lean.
Lean is a buzz word. All buzz words have a shelf life. At best Lean will be replaced by a new word that describes TPS and an innovative, respectful, ethical and profitable company better than the current buzz word “Lean enterprise” does. At worst it will compete with a new buzz word such as “outsourcing” or “innovation” which represents not an advancement of Lean but a shift of focus. The word Lean is loaded with other connotations such as “lean and mean” or “the lean years” or being hungry to the point of discomfort. The English word “Lean” has no explicit link to continuous improvement. We should use the term Lean and speak frankly about implementing Lean manufacturing, but it is better to call it “[Your Company Name] Production System” or “[Your Company Name] Business System” or “[Your Company Name] Way”.
Items 1, 3 and 4 are pre-conditions to building and sustaining a successful Lean culture long-term. Items 2 and 5 are nice to have and will help with this.
Toyota copied many aspects of the Ford System, combined them with other innovations, and developed TPS according to unique Japanese cultural and social characteristics both good and bad. Toyota took apart the Ford System, kept the good parts and got rid of the parts that were not good and built a better business system. That is the essence of kaizen. Let’s all do the same with TPS.