Lean Manufacturing

Overheard in Amsterdam: I Just Want the #$%@ to Clean Things Up

By Jon Miller Published on May 12th, 2008

It was midnight body time and 8AM in Amsterdam. Sitting in the KLM lounge waiting for a connection, the two men in the chairs next to me speak with American accents: “So I want to go over what they are doing. Hour by hour charts? Standard work? Process capability? 5S?”
Surely I’m hallucinating from overwork, but no, it’s a small world and lean manufacturing is playing a bigger part in it than ever before. This sounded like a meeting between a site lean leader and an corporate lean consultant. The conversation went on like this for some minutes, with the corporate lean guy ticking off a list of lean tools in his day planner and the site lean guy dodging and weaving in return, sometimes giving good reasons why these tools had been put in place, and sometimes not.
The conversation was not very interesting and quite ignorable until the volume increased due to some comments about quality mishaps followed by loud laughter, distracting me from my work. Trying not to eavesdrop, one exchange jumped out and could not be ignored.
“So what are you doing about standard work?” Corporate lean guy asks.
“As far as I’m concerned, 5S is the foundation of standard work. You can’t have standards without it.” Says site lean guy. Then suddenly, “To be honest, I just want the #$%@ to clean things up.”
To be honest, there are a number of things very wrong with that statement. He started out right by saying that 5S is the foundation for standard work. The two can certainly exist separately but for people to be able to follow standard work, the area must be sorted and straightened. Even if the area is dirty and disorganized, it must at least be predictably and repeatably so. In fact you can have standards without 5S, and Taiichi Ohno the father of TPS even said that it was better to have a poor standard that you can observe and improve than to have no standard at all.
To be honest is a good thing, but for someone who is presumably a site lean leader to “just want (disrespectful term for people) to clean things up” misses the entire spirit of 5S, if not lean management itself. You can tell people to just clean up, and this man probably has, to no avail. He will continue to fail until starts with mutual respect, he makes an explicit link in demonstrable fact and in the minds of workers that 5S reduces variation in the methods, time and effort it takes to do their job. The practice of 5S is groundwork for basic management, lean or not. If you can’t move people to do 5S, good luck with the rest.
It was a teachable moment, but it was almost time for boarding. I didn’t check to see whether the corporate lean guy with the long list of lean tools had his head in his hands or jaw on the floor.

  1. Lester Sutherland

    May 12, 2008 - 12:45 pm

    The buzz words are easy, I hear them all the time. Unfortunately there are a lot of consultants that rely on the buzz words with little understanding behind them of how the work in the system.

  2. Mark Graban

    May 12, 2008 - 1:18 pm

    Agreed it was ideal language from the guy, but some people just talk that way. Was it the tone of voice, I presume??

  3. Gabriela

    May 12, 2008 - 6:34 pm

    The worst would have been seeing the corporate lean guy nodding his head in approval, to add to your reflections.
    Doesn’t it start from the top? The top guy has a responsibility to ensure that his people are fully trained and capable.
    Indeed, there’s a problem out there with people claiming lean knowledge. I had an engineering student who, after finishing his 4-month work term with me, said: Now I can add to my resume that I know how to “do” lean.”
    It is true that during that period my company became green on 5S, but the journey had started years before and we had our setbacks.
    Somebody else was upset that he had not received the title of lean champion after he assisted with some activities while I was temporarily assigned to a different company.
    So lean manufacturing and its tools are perceived as something anybody can do just because a lot of is common sense. As a result, many companies fail.
    Without understanding and embracing the underlying philosophy, without deep understanding of the lean principles and tools, without a lot of practice companies will still fail.
    People like you, Jon, are our chance to get it right and I thank you for opening up the communication lines and helping us have a voice in the lean community.

  4. Jon Miller

    May 13, 2008 - 12:59 pm

    I’m not sure that “some people just talk that way” excuses him from using respectful language in certain contexts. Anyone in a position to lead others needs to do so based on mutual respect.

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