Highlights from Lean Manufacturing Journey to the West

On this trip to China I found a lot of openness to learning about new things, and Lean manufacturing in particular. People in China are certainly proud of their 4,000 years of history, but they are eager to learn and progress. We could all learn from this attitude.
Eli Goldratt’s books have recently been translated into Chinese, and TOC is now in vogue. This is good news in general, as TOC can help improve companies that are in traditional batch and queue mode. This is bad news for efforts to promote Lean manufacturing in the sense that people are asking the question “Should we do Lean or Six Sigma or TOC?” This is likely to delay the proper (TPS) understanding and implementation of Lean manufacturing in China.
Looking for demonstrations of the Lean principle of “respect for people”, I found better working conditions in the factories I visited this time than even those of 1 year ago. In the entrance to one of the factory buildings, a giant yellow and red banner read in Chinese: “Nothing is more precious than life, we are duty-bound by heaven to safety.”
Surprisingly there were several notable failures to “simplify first, then automate” in the factories I visited. You would think that Chinese manufacturers would be more frugal than companies in richer companies, more prone to making their own machines or starting with simple machines, but this was not in the cases on this trip. Millions of RMB have been spent on equipment and systems which are either unnecessary or overly complex, from a Lean manufacturing perspective.
Other impressions:
The return flight was on Shanghai Airlines, not Sichuan Airlines, so the mystery of the emergency exit procedure persists.
I ate food so spicy it left my mouth numb, but oddly it was not painfully numb.
If you can’t see above the boxes of inventory on your shop floor, you probably don’t know what you have (ERP or no ERP).
Words from a wise man: If you want to teach people, smile like the Maitreya Buddha.
And like the characters in the Chinese fable Journey to the West, I also returned from my journey with texts containing valuable teaching. I picked up several books written about the Toyota Production System by Chinese consultants, formerly of Toyota. As these are decoded, I will share any new insights they may contain.

2 Comments

  1. Mike Gardner

    October 15, 2007 - 10:25 am

    Those are good signs, Jon, but when I read your description of the safety banner I couldn’t help but think back to this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GZrntCbVT8
    Which do you think is most representative of today’s Chinese factory?

  2. Jon

    October 15, 2007 - 11:12 am

    Hi Mike,
    There is definitely an increasing awareness of safety, health and environmental impact within Chinese industry and government.
    We still see cases like the video link you provided, but these are mostly in smaller, low-profile factories and not from the ones that do business with or have visitors from the overseas.