Lean Manufacturing in One Word

Some of the most popular so-called lean manufacturing tools (some of which are actually systems, others which are disciplines, yet others which are in fact policies) can be reduced to one word: respect. This is staggering when you think about it, and makes you wonder at the subtle genius of Toyota’s simplification of their operating system as “kaizen and respect for people”. The whole system is based on mutual respect. Practically everything else is an entailment.
Safety first is the obvious one. In addition to being a good idea from a PR standpoint, the unwanted scrutiny of federal and local agencies, and for avoiding direct costs such as lost time and insurance premiums, having a safe workplace is merely the humane thing to do. But to place safety first and take it seriously as such requires deep commitment. A surprising number of people who think they put safety first in fact do not, in my experience. This is a question of mistaking the activity of placing safety first (safety walks, safety councils, safety audits, safety kaizens) with the spirit of it: deep respect for the human whose safety you are protecting.
TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) is supposedly all about maximizing OEE and getting the most out of your assets by minimizing the 6 big losses and being able to run machines whenever they are needed. But is it really about machines? Isn’t it about taking proper care of other people’s property? How about showing respect for others who use the same equipment, perhaps on another shift, but cleaning and checking so that the equipment is always in good condition? isn’t it about avoiding breakdowns which are trouble for everyone, from customers to the maintenance people who have to fix machines to supervisors who have to reassign people while they wait for the machine to be fixed. We’re not doing TPM for the sake of the machines, we’re doing it for people.
The notion of downstream pull, kanbans, supermarkets and so forth demonstrate respect by placing the needs of others before your own. Work start only when the downstream person withdraws or signals through a kanban card or similar object that they need your product. Instead of a self-centered production based on push, the downstream pull system puts the control of our work in the hands of the people who come after us. In a demonstration of the golden rule, we also pull from the upstream process as their customer. Without a basic agreement to respect the kanban cards, containers or carts as inviolable instructions to produce or move, the system simply collapses. No amount of sophisticated calculations, software simulations or automation will save you.
Making things one by one is a core lean manufacturing principle and a means to lower inventories, improved productivity, better quality through early detection of errors and exposure of various problems within the system. One piece flow might seem like safe territory to cede to the technical side of the Toyota Production System as opposed to the human side. Yet there is something deeply respectful of people and their creativity to let them work on only one thing. How many of us have that luxury? In this day of multi-tasking it is a rare thing to be able to start and finish the same task, job or project before the next sunrise. Repetitive manufacturing may be one of the last few places where one piece flow allows a person to complete a task before moving on to the next. The ability to see the results of one’s work as a completed product is far more satisfying than knowing that you spent the day creating the same amount of unfinished goods or services. More than anything else one piece flow gives people the ability to find problems and address them more quickly.
Jidoka originated from giving automation the ability to detect errors and stop and eventually expanded to give workers the authority to call for help or even stop the line when there was a problem. In practice built in quality is nothing if not a commitment to check one’s own work, communicate rapidly when errors are found, cooperate in finding the root cause and taking corrective measures. A lit andon lamp means nothing without the area engineer or supervisors having the highest respect for that worker and for the integrity for the integrity of that process. Although there are many tools and sub-disciplines built into built in quality, at a basic level it is nothing more than an agreement and kept promises in regards to checking and doing quality work.
Smoothing out the production schedule by averaging the volume and mix through heijunka relies on the artful use of boxes, wheels and other three-dimensional tools to organize in flow of incoming kanban cards or customer orders into a well-balanced pattern of work. Not to mention the work upfront by production control personnel to develop and maintain an algorithm, design products that fit within the existing demand or product complexity profiles, and the coordination with marketing and sales to be able to meet customer commitments. We can say that the art of heijunka began with the recognition that un-smooth production schedules were simply not reasonable. They were muri. Allowing demand spikes or poor product mixes to make highly variable demands on people, suppliers and delivery logistics is more than a bad idea in terms of cost and quality, it disrespects people. In the triangle of customer first, low inventory and respect for people, too often on-time deliveries with minimum inventories means that people are overburdened. The proper application of heijunka show proper respect to people within a production system.
Standard work is documenting the work sequence paced by takt time, the positioning of equipment, standard work in process and various quality and safety checks on several documents and then following this routine until a better standard is found. While there are a couple of useful but simple formulas, some well laid out document templates and so forth, isn’t standard work all about being accountable for holding up your end of the bargain? You set up the process to be safe and efficient, I follow it until a better way is found. Again, it’s basically a question of fulfilling an agreement and mutual respect.
Kaizen is certainly an important part of lean manufacturing. Without continuous improvement, lean manufacturing is dead. Award-winning factories look like dead husks in less than 2 years when there is no spirit to keep the place alive. Lean manufacturing systems that primarily implement, certify and sustain are obsolete from the moment the ink dries on the certificate. Kaizen puts people in the center of the operating system by harnessing their creativity to continually develop and improve both themselves and the process. It takes mutual respect for kaizen to thrive; leaders need to recognize that the ideas of many are superior to the insights of the wise few while the team members need to return the respect by giving freely of their ideas and mental attention.
Can a lean manufacturing implementation succeed without a strong element of respect? For that matter, can any endeavor? Lean manufacturing in one word is respect. In two words it is mutual respect. In three words it is respect for people. Let’s start there and see how far we can get with just that. When we try to be all inclusive and add word after word to the definition of lean, we are likely to lose our way.


  1. Wayne Marhelski

    September 4, 2008 - 4:21 am

    Great post Jon! I’ve always felt that the “toolbox” approach was completely inadequate to true transformation. When people talk about doing TPM, SMED, etc.; all too often there seems to a disconnect or failure to realize that all these methods work in synergy.
    I believe it was Ohno that stated that these approaches are ways to manage your business/area on a daily basis, not just when it is convenient or during a “kaizen” event.
    Thanks again,

  2. Rob

    September 8, 2008 - 6:51 am

    Lean, properly implemented, should deepen the respect an organisation has for its people. The two columns that support the Toyota Production System are Respect for People (including employees) and Continuous Improvement. Unless the people in Gemba feel respected there is little indication that true Lean can take place. I’m reminded of SEMCO who seem to have a profound respect for people and their ingenuity: http://tinyurl.com/5qq8ma

  3. Arnold Johnson

    December 13, 2009 - 12:10 pm

    I have been involced with Lean a long time and just wanted to tell you that your comments here truly represent the heart and soul of what Lean is really about. A very fine commnetary!