Lean From The Inside

Some of the most striking changes resulting from lean manufacturing can only be appreciated once the shop’s lean transformation is fully underway.


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Lean manufacturing is full of surprises. The shops I visited recently could attest to this—not just the shops in our August issue, but also the ones newly captured in video. For all of them, lean manufacturing delivered benefits and change beyond what they expected. This positive surprise is one further aspect of lean that deserves to be highlighted.

In a way, lean shouldn’t be so surprising. Lean entails a disciplined and even relentless focus on eliminating sources of waste. Lean is serious.

Yet, it’s also transformative—and those who experience a shop before and after lean get to see seemingly unchangeable aspects of the process, including some people, perform in strikingly different ways.

Start with the “clean.” Clutter is where waste hides, so a lean shop is a clean shop practically by definition. As various messes and stockpiles disappear, it can be amazing to discover just how clean it was always possible for the shop to be.

Similarly, other surprising changes are so basic that they can only be fully appreciated after they have occurred. Those changes might include any of the following:

1. Work now proceeds without meetings. “Meetings” and “manufacturing” seem to go together, given how often many shops huddle to get basic questions answered. By contrast, a lean process aims to get the right information to the right people as a matter of routine. Once this starts to happen, meetings of all sorts become dramatically less necessary and frequent.

2. Inspection isn’t a stick. The title of an article this month is, “If You Want to Improve Something, Measure It.” That becomes the motto for measurement in lean. Because the lean process is stripped of variables leading to error, measurement is no longer a pass/fail yardstick. Instead, measurement is valued for the upward pressure on quality that results whenever any indicator of performance is measured and tracked.

3. Failure is no cause for fear. When change is occasional, failure is remembered for a long time. However, when improvement is continuous, failure is just a means to progress. The lessons are soon incorporated into subsequent success.

4. Resisters become advocates. Some employees resist lean, but not necessarily because of lean itself. They resist because they have grown accustomed, rightly or wrongly, to being swept along in changes they have no power to affect. However, when these same employees are tasked with participating in 5S teams, they often find an outlet for insight and creativity that the employee or the shop never brought into play previously.

5. Productivity is actually easy. Another reason for resisting lean is the fear that employees will have more to do. It’s a valid fear; the output of a lean process is likely to increase. However, the input decreases at the same time. As a result, employees at work in a lean environment often discover just how much more satisfying and rewarding their effort can be once they are part of a process that fully values their time.