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Lean Thinking, Think Lean

Lean Thinking, Think Lean It’s been over 24 years since Jim Womack and Daniel Jones wrote “The Machine that Changed the World” and 18 years since they published “Lean Thinking”. The former is a description of the Toyota Management System and the latter a tutorial on lean manufacturing.

In that time, American industry has embraced “Lean” like no other management idea. I have an entire bookcase full of lean “how to” books. Major universities have developed programs to train and certify lean practitioners. As a result, there has been a revolution in how work is conducted in transaction oriented operations.There has also been a significant amount of backsliding. When I go into many production sites, I find process control boards that have not been updated in months, kaizen events are non-existent, and management has not walked the floor all year.

What’s happened? American industry got the lean part right but missed the “thinking” requirement. Every black belt practitioner can tell you the five elements of lean, the seven wastes, the five S’s; what icons go on a value stream map and how to run a kaizen event. How many can tell you how to organize and motivate the workforce to sustain and improve lean processes? We have standard work for operators, maintenance technicians and for managers. Everything is auditable because we “trust but verify”. We need to audit because the people have not internalized the lean thinking process to the point where it is performed as a natural function, like breathing.

People become very good at counting the boxes and filling them in but if we ask them to build the boxes they can’t do it. One of the key principles of the Toyota Management System is “respect for people”. This means respect for the experience and talents that the people have who are doing the work. The late Wallace Richardson, Professor of Industrial Engineering at Lehigh University once told me during an engineering standards course, “A good operator can beat a great engineer eight days out of seven”. What he meant was that the operator knows the work better than anyone, but they may not be motivated to share their knowledge because it might mean that they would have to work harder or possibly be laid off. You won’t get the best information with a stopwatch and a clipboard. You have to engage the operators in meaningful discussions.

Ok, isn’t that what a kaizen event is for? Actually, no. Kaizen means, roughly interpreted, continuous improvement. Events are often short, intense group work sessions, designed to make step change improvements to a process. Afterwards, everybody goes back to their day jobs. The average worker has a new set of procedures but no new set of thinking. What is needed is a set of principles that are easy to remember and the opportunity to practice those principles, regularly.

Third, and most important, lean must not be used as a headcount reduction program. This is basic common sense in human nature. People do things that they perceive is in their best interest. If they think they will lose their livelihood as a result, cooperation will be very hard to achieve. If you create the proper environment and invest the time, then, good habits are formed and the ideas start flowing. There are several documented cases that show that the greatest gains from lean are not at the beginning but from continued support of the concept over time. So, create the environment, train the people, give them the time to develop ideas and insist that they think lean. It’s not how they drive the form, its how they form the drive.

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