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Lean is About People, Not Tools

Lean is About People, Not Tools

Lean is About People, Not Tools

By Jason Piatt | Industry Week

If we are serious about global competitiveness and a sustained ability to retain American jobs in American factories, it is imperative we recognize one irrefutable fact: the technical issues associated with factory performance improvement are inseparable from people issues. Our approach in improvement and performance optimization must encompass both sets of issues.

Here’s the problem, in manufacturing environments, we are constantly told “think lean” to advance. We’re led to believe that we need to “properly deploy lean tools in our plants to achieve global competitiveness.” Authors of various academic literature, textbooks, and articles teach us to believe that if we just “implement lean” that the financial and performance results of our operations will parallel those of Toyota and their legendary Production System (TPS).

They’re wrong. The experts are missing the point of TPS and fail to see the disconnect between true TPS implementation and lean thinking.

Firstly, the beauty of the Toyota Production System is in the elegance of its simplicity. TPS boils down to two key principles: continuous improvement and respect for people. All too often, executives attend a lean seminar and learn the tools of lean (value stream mapping, kanban, poke yoke, and others). What they fail to learn is that, for their lean journey to be successful, they must not only deploy knowledge of lean tools, but entirely change the culture of their business.

So what does it take to change the culture of the business so that it includes lean? We must focus on obtaining a critical mass of people within the organization who will not only act lean, but also think and believe lean. While many people within manufacturing organizations in the United States have been through Lean training and may understand lean principles very well, they fail to see the applicability (or further applicability) of the principles to their particular circumstance. We need to help them see the connection.

Lean Redefines Problems Entirely

Lean isn’t just a set of tools for process improvement because tools alone aren’t enough. It is a complete perspective on manufacturing philosophy. In order to be successful, we must trust people within the plant to solve their problems regardless of how the problem was initially defined.

If we consider the position of a typical American plant manager, the problem-statement has historically been “keep hitting your numbers, make sure the plant has plenty of work in the backlog, and avoid too many problems with the union and vendors.” This perspective typically forces the plant manager to stay in his or her office, focus on “the numbers,” run large batches of product to gain efficiency, et cetera.

Utilizing TPS, the problems are redefined entirely. The new goals are “produce only items that have been ordered by a customer, never let plant personnel face a problem alone, never skip past a problem in the plant, and continually improve the plant’s processes.” The work of the plant manager will now dramatically change. In order to solve the problems in the TPS perspective, the plant manager must spend most of his or her time on the shop floor understanding the intimate details of the plant’s operation and working with teams to be more precise and to improve the processes with which they interact.

So what’s the answer? Knowing that long before rolling out lean tools in our operations, we must first teach our people to see the operation through lean eyes. This is best achieved through respect for people. In a respectful way, we teach the team within our operations to see waste without feeling wasteful. We show that we are using lean to improve the processes and to ultimately increase success on an organizational and personal level — never to identify opportunities for headcount reduction. To begin to embrace the cultural change that lean requires, we must see our facilities with greater attention to detail and enhanced understanding of how the various elements affect each other in terms of operational outcome.

An Ever-Moving Target

Developing the discipline of this visual capability remains extraordinarily difficult because it is an ever-moving target. Even for plants where all of the latest and greatest lean tools have been accepted and implemented, the challenge can be immense. We have to teach our plant teams two things: 1) how to resolve problems quickly and; 2) feel the appropriate tension to drive them toward solving the root-cause problem, not just gaining quick resolution to an immediate issue.

Here’s what I mean. While working in an automotive plant, I was impressed by their use of pull, the kanban systems in place, and judicious location of supermarkets within the plant. A forklift driver passed me on the way to retrieve additional materials from the supermarket, kanban card in handonly to be disappointed when no material of the type sought was available within the supermarket. Not to be deterred, the operator quickly pivoted the forklift and headed for a safety stock location. Production was not interrupted and the driver had self-solved the immediate issue. Despite an impressive array of lean tools, no one sought resolution of the root cause problem: Why had the supermarket run out of material?

Rolling out lean tools with the greatest of slogans, impressive banners, and dazzling instruction to continuously improve aren’t enough. We must couple the awareness by engaging the hearts and minds of manufacturing personnel for true lean success.

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