What Is Lean Manufacturing?
This is the first of a series of six podcasts on Lean manufacturing. Throughout a wide variety of industries, ranging from manufacturing to healthcare, "Lean" is the topic of the day. Many organizations will attempt to implement Lean work processes. And many will fail. Why is this?
I'd like to start to answer this question by sharing an experience I had over twenty-five years ago. It happened at a briefing on what were then cutting edge manufacturing processes. Sponsored by one of the Big Four CPA firms, the program featured, in addition to partners from the firm's Tokyo office, a plant manager of a Toyota facility in Japan. After the presentation, questions were taken from the audience. Audience members, most of whom were from manufacturing facilities throughout the Midwest, eagerly asked questions about various manufacturing processes that had been described during the presentation. After about twenty of these types of questions, the Japanese gentleman stopped taking questions and said to the audience, "Why have none of you asked me about the beliefs upon which the practices we've described are based?" There was absolute silence. He continued, "The fact that you haven't asked this question leads me to believe that you don't really understand what I've been talking about."
We didn't. He continued, telling us that the real force behind Toyota's manufacturing processes was a set of beliefs. They included beliefs having to do with the nature of the relationship between managers and workers. They included beliefs about the degree to which workers should be depended upon to develop enhancements to manufacturing processes. They included beliefs about the degree to which workers should exercise control over manufacturing processes. He told us that unless an organization was led by individuals who shared these beliefs, their attempts to implement the manufacturing processes he had described would fail. A couple of years later, at MIT, Jim Womack would label the processes described in the program I had attended, "Lean Manufacturing" and a revolution was in the making.
But it's a revolution that hasn't had nearly impact that it could, and should, have had. Why is this?
I didn't really begin to understand what this lean revolution was about until 1986 when I was the lead consultant of a group conducting team building training at the New United Motors Corporation in Fremont, CA, a joint venture of Toyota and General Motors. It was in this plant, called "NUMMI," that I experienced first-hand the impact of lean. The place was immaculate. Workers were smiling and they were energized. Absenteeism was far below the level it was at when it was a Chevrolet truck plant. Management and Labor had a very positive relationship. And the products they made, the Toyota Corolla and Geo Prism, were ranked at the top of the J D Powers quality rankings.
One of the things that NUMMI did in preparing its managers and supervisors to be successful in supporting Lean was to send them to Toyota facilities in Japan so they could learn firsthand not only about Lean work processes but also about the beliefs upon which these processes were based.
This experience ... and many others since then ... have convinced me that any attempt to transform a work environment needs to address both processes and beliefs if it's going to be successful. It convinced me that Lean was a lot more than Value Stream Mapping, Six Sigma, 5S, Work Cell Design, or Kanban. These are important processes, but by themselves their impact will be transient. Achieving long term impact requires that the organization build a solid foundation for the support of these processes. And the foundation upon which Lean must be built is a series of beliefs about the nature of work and workers. Building this foundation is not optional. Without it, Lean will just not stick long term. The remaining podcasts in this series focus on what needs to be done to build this type of foundation.
Have a great day! And if you'd like to discuss any of the ideas shared in these podcasts please call me anytime at 314-303-0612 and let's talk about it. Oh, and by the way, next week's podcast is about the impact Henry Ford had on Lean manufacturing and how Ford's thinking is of great value today ... for you.