5 Things I am Still Learning about Lean Manufacturing

Fifteen years to the week since stepping into the stormy presence of Nakao sensei, one of Taiichi Ohno’s students who know goes by the curiously alcoholic moniker of FOM – Father of Moonshine – I am still learning about lean manufacturing.
1. People think they have done 5S
Most who think they have, have not. And if you can’t do 5S, you can’t do lean. It’s a question of setting rules and following them. It’s not a question of cleanliness, that is only one of the end results of proper 5S. This sounds so obvious and easy that one tends to give it lip service. So many companies have launched 5S as a program and then moved on to other tools, only to watch as they stall or fail, and to blame everything but their lack of diligence in sorting and straightening. As much as certifications and awards for lean manufacturing achievement seem arbitrary and potentially dangerous, perhaps there should be a global standard that companies are required to maintain in 5S in order to do business. It is not hard to do 5S, if you just do it. It would certainly raise the safety, quality, health and morale levels while reducing cost. The Prussians were fairly close to this, but it shouldn’t take a benevolent dictatorship to apply some common sense and order.
2. The shareholder couldn’t care less about people
The shareholder and the maximization of return in whose benefit most public corporations strive, does not understand or even care to understand lean manufacturing. Their chief concern is that the company continues to show earnings growth and resulting increase in share price, or so we have been told. The fact that lean manufacturing can do this in the short term without developing people, or even with blatant disregard for the welfare of people, is still hard to understand. How true is it that shareholder want the leadership of the companies maximize share value above nearly anything else, and that they couldn’t care less about the people and communities that are costs to be cut or factories to be sold or off-shored? How can lean manufacturing succeed within publicly traded companies whose leadership is rewarded based on serving the shareholder first and foremost? These are not rhetorical questions, as the long-term viability of such manufacturers may depend on the answers.
3. The factory will fix itself
The “hard” size of lean manufacturing has become less and less interesting and the “soft” side has become more interesting over the past couple of years. This from a fellow who likes little more than walking with a problem solving team through a few miles of convoluted value steam. I used to wonder at the consultants decades my senior who would tell me “it’s all about leadership” or “most of lean is organization design” and wonder if they had ever heard of standardized work or heijunka. Maybe as you age the math gets harder and soft issues are easier to process, or maybe or factory design loses its challenge. Or maybe I am only just learning that if you properly take care of the people issues first, the factory will fix itself.
4. For every waste there is a season

All wastes are not equally bad in all companies, or even in the same company from season to season. Over the past 15 years it seems that improving labor productivity by reducing motion and waiting waste was a perennial favorite.Improving cash flow and reducing carrying cost by cutting inventory waste and overproduction is a close second. People are finally waking up to energy waste and starting to do something about it. For years it was like crying out in the wilderness when speaking about energy kaizen in the US. These days transportation waste is getting more attention, as increasing fuel costs make extended supply chains an lousy logistics a pain point for many organizations. Defects are the obvious and undisputed waste, yet it seems that this is also a seasonal waste: serious efforts to reduce defects crop up most often when serious defects appear, and when processes appear stable, the cry of “zero defects” fades into the echo. But be patient, and the season for every waste, and the effort to reduce it, will come. Leaders need to keep and promote a high level of awareness that waste is an “all season” phenomena. As Taiichi Ohno said, “Do kaizen when times are good” because for every waste there is a season, and when the season comes it is could be too late.
5. People and their ideas

Always astonishing. Enough said.

2 Comments

  1. Ed Birch

    September 9, 2008 - 7:48 pm

    You are absolutely right. I implemented on a plant that failed on 5S and we could not get lean implemented. Failure in 5S is driven by the problematic plant culture. We had to back up and prepare the culture and make pride in work a priority. Acting with a sense of urgency and attention to detail was a major obstacle that we focused on then was successful at a lean implementation.

  2. Anonymous

    October 18, 2008 - 10:31 pm

    Jon,
    Excellent post. Especially for point 4; For every waste there is seasonal. thank you