Spreading and growing naturally—for fruits and vegetables, that’s the essence of organic gardening. Improvements can spread and grow naturally on the shop floor, too. Just as organically grown produce has benefits that are unattainable when artificial fertilizers and pesticides are applied, a shop’s workforce can benefit more from developing new habits and adopting new techniques without a strong management push. It’s better that way.
Many companies that make the move to lean manufacturing experience this phenomenon. The typical story goes something like this: One part of the shop floor is designated as a pilot area for lean implementation. The first step usually involves 5S, a systematic effort to “sort, shine, simplify, standardize and sustain” an organized workspace. Although the initial participants may resist at first, they are won over by the gratifying results of this “lean enabling” experience. The reduction in wasted time, motion and material is apparent—and not only to this group of pioneers, but also to the rest of the shop.
Before long, workers in other areas begin to copy the same principles on their own. Clutter begins to disappear. Tools and fixtures get designated spots. Soon, additional groups are clamoring to be next in line to join the lean transformation.
Promoting this sort of organic, “from within” change ought to be a goal for managers, regardless of whether lean manufacturing is under consideration. As the organic farmer or gardener can attest, taking the natural approach is mostly a matter of awareness and commitment. It does not necessarily mean more time, effort or money. Mulching with compost, for example, is likely to be as effective and economical as putting chemicals into the soil. Likewise, managers should be skeptical of imposing changes by mandate, even if positive gains in the short term seem to validate this tack. Rather, getting a production team involved in decision making leads to better choices and a smoother execution.
Because lean manufacturing is an on-going, systematic effort to eliminate the sources of waste in a production process, it doesn’t simply happen on its own. Lean manufacturing is implemented step by step, with each step accompanied by a purposeful, conscious strategy that looks toward specific, measurable results. Lean techniques can grow, spread and be sustained organically within an organization, but this happens only when lean thinking and lean practice are properly cultivated.
Even used figuratively, that word precisely captures what must take place. Managers must tend patiently and consistently to the wants of customers and to the needs of employees on the production line. Managers have to care.