Recent Comments

    Lean: Proven Techniques or Half Baked “Boloney”

    My company does a lot of operations improvement work in the food industry. And if you ask me it’s sometimes difficult to discern between the bologna that’s being produce by the production line and the bologna the surrounds many ill fated attempts at improving processes. The word ‘lean’ has become associated with the Japanese automotive industry, in particular, Toyota. This has both positive and negative connotations. On the plus side, it is no secret that Toyota is one the best, if not the premier, manufacturing company in the world today. Its innovations and manufacturing principles have been the topic of thousands of articles, seminars, books, and hallway conversations in North America for over 20 years. On the negative side, in too many cases the efforts of what Toyota was able to accomplish has been over-simplified and reduced to set of ad hoc ‘lean techniques’ such as 5S, value stream mapping, cellular manufacturing, Kanban, kaizen events etc. The parallels between these techniques and bologna are striking: a bunch of independent ingredients ground up and combined so that the blandness and uniformity overshadows any real taste.

    Unfortunately too many companies have a superficial understanding of lean and have been used as guise for downsizing employees. Clearly, this bastardization of lean is in not the real intent yet, all too often, it has become the reality of many U.S. based companies.

    In their book The Machine that Changed the World (1990), Womack, Jones and Roos review the evolution of the auto industry and how U.S developed mass production had been supplanted by a newer and more effective system developed in Japan (particular Toyota) after WWII. In 1996, Womack and Jones released subsequent book Lean Thinking where they added a framework around their research and Lean became a movement in this country.

    A number of books that followed exposed U.S manufacturing to the Japanese production concepts. In too many cases, however, what was presented was grossly over-simplified and glossed over the real necessary conditions required for sustainable success. We all have heard the stories where some company, after attending a JIT seminar or reading a book on JIT, would literally cut inventory across the organization. Of course, this usually resulted in disaster. How many companies have placed Andon lights on all the equipment, but as you walk through the plant, most are on red, and nobody even notices. Think of how many companies hastily rearranged equipment in the plant, calling it a cell, but still using work orders and lot sizes generated by their MRP system?

    When Womack and Jones Lean Thinking was released in 1996, it provided a framework based on Dr. Ohno’s Toyota Production System (TPS) that could seemingly be applied in any industry. According to Womack and Jones, Lean Thinking is viewing an organization as three primary processes that create value for consumers: 1). Product development, 2). Order to delivery, and 3). Service through the product’s life cycle. For each of these processes we ask what value really is from the standpoint of the customer. Then ask how the process currently performs and how it could perform better and finally ask what people and business processes are needed to support the value creating processes. In other words, lean thinking attempts to align purpose, process, and people in search of the perfect process.

    It is now very clear that Lean thinking is a proven philosophy for at least one key company – Toyota. However the jury’s still out on whether or not other companies will be able to emulate Toyota. Also note that Toyota still calls its system TPS, not lean.

    In Jeff Liker’s recent book, The Toyota Way, Liker explains the TPS is the culmination of the culture developed over 50 years which allows Toyota to be a successful learning organization. As Liker pointed out, the real core competencies involve the culture and transformation into a learning organization, much more challenging to implement than a set of and hoc industrial engineering techniques commonly practiced in the U.S. and confused in implementing a true learning organization necessary for TPS.

    In many ways, the very success of Toyota has had a negative influence in how lean is being implemented in North America. The temptation to apply and copy the tools developed by Toyota is very compelling – it works! But, it works for Toyota and was developed by the culture Toyota spent over 50 years creating. The real lesson of lean as Liker says it is to create an organization that is capable of inventing its own specific solutions. This is not to suggest an organization reinvents the wheel, but merely mimicking the solutions developed by one successful company and trying to force fit it into another company is not in the true spirit of lean thinking. What is required is a fundamental paradigm shift in the way the organization connects operational practices with business results.

    True Lean Thinking involves the development of a philosophy based on a company’s greatest asset-its people. None of the lean techniques are sustainable unless the people in the organization thrive in a culture where a learning organization exists. The development of this learning culture is the crux of Lean. In the end, a company must create its own culture and requisite process and solutions that best meet it needs, and not naively plagiarize one successful company. The real question is whether not American companies are up the challenge to think for themselves.

    Here are a few questions that need to be considered prior to engaging in the process of ongoing improvement:

    1. Leadership commitment! Recall the old ham and eggs metaphor - the hen is only involved whereas the pig is committed. Are the leaders actively behaving as the chief change agents or have they delegated this crucial element to an “improvement committee” or some “lean improvement manager”?

    2. In any improvement process there will be a few stumbles and falls. Is there sufficient mutual trust between the leaders and subordinates that will allow the people to work through its mistakes and learn as an organization?

    3. It’s well-known that measures drive behavior, yet in many cases speed measurement systems remain the same. Has there been sufficient thinking in terms of what the new measures should be and how they will be calculated? Playing a new game with an old scoring technique will just result in confusion for the organization.

    While it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel, it is imperative each company do its own homework. Engaging in superficial application of another company’s solution is likely to result in a pile of half-baked bologna.


    Richard Bernett is a partner with 3sixty solution - an Performance Engineering company that helps the North American food industry improve overall profitability and sustain growth by providing the capabilities for development of new products and by improved productivity of existing capacity.


    Richard can be reached by email rbernett@3sixty or phone at 612-216-1629