Why doesn’t Lean work? | A discussion started by Norman Bodek

Norman Bodek asked this provocative question on the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn, and elaborated as follows:

“Lean is a total system of continuous improvement with everyone involved.

A few years back, I visited Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, Kentucky with the group of executives from various construction corporations. One member of our team asked Gary Convis, then president of Toyota, ” What do you expect from your workers?” Gary answered, “Only two things: come to work and pull the cord.”

Simple, but how many of you attempting to do Lean allow your employees to pull the cord, stop the line, and have everybody, literally everybody in the plant, wait until that one person resolves the problem. I would guess only 1% or less of you that are attempting to implement lean allow your workers to stop the line. Why?

Lean is a very powerful process that has allowed Toyota to grow from a company that made junk in 1952 to one of the largest most successful corporations in the world producing some of the highest quality automobiles available. And the essence of Lean is to empower every employee to become a problem solver, to make every employee self-reliant. But how do you do this? How can you begin to trust your employees that they will make the right decision for the company? I say “simple”, because if Toyota can do it so can you.

Yes, you are running your kaizen blitzes and they are wonderful. Yes, you are doing Six-Sigma and that is wonderful. Yes, you are doing value stream mapping and it is wonderful. Yes, you are doing 5S, setting up cellular manufacturing, doing TPM, Hoshin Kanri, and using many of the wonderful Toyota tools, but you are, for some strange reason, not empowering your employees to be self-reliant.

Toyota probably fearful to build plants in America, suggested to General Motors to set up a joint venture and Toyota would teach them how to use the Toyota production system and be able to transfer it to all General Motors plants. GM, laughingly, selected their worse plant in Fremont, California, NUMMI, and gave it to Toyota to run. One year later, NUMMI became the best plant in the GM system but GM never really learned how to implement properly in their other plants and GM went bankrupt.

I recently came back from Japan, my 81st trip, and was told that Toyota is still the best model to follow. I strongly recommend that you learn how to emulate them and get every single employee involved in continuous improvement. Find a way to let everyone in your company walk on two feet. But, I ask you, ‘How are you going to do it? How are you going to make lean work?'”

There have been 70 comments, as of today, from Sid Joynson, William Botha, Thomas Ligocki, Philip Marris, Anthony Mangione, Peter WintonCarlos Hernández, and others. My own response was as follows:

Norman’s diagnosis that Lean isn’t working is correct if you are discussing what passes for Lean in the US, and it’s not just an impression. A few years ago, I did my own analysis, the results of which were published as a Viewpoint in Manufacturing Engineering in 2006 . I chose 40 winners of the Shingo Prize and searched Hoovers Online, for comparative performance data with their 400 top competitors. On the average, the data did not show that the Shingo Prize predicted any advantage in profitability, market share or employment growth.

Fundamentally, most Lean programs today are to serious implementations as cheap imitation shoes are to the training of Usain Bolt.

Norman, however, goes one level deeper when he says “Lean is a total system of continuous improvement with everyone involved,” which implies that the key to making Lean successful is to get everyone involved in continuous improvement, and I don’t think that is the case. Don’t get me wrong. It is no doubt a wonderful and useful thing. I just don’t see it as the key.

I find it always enlightening to compare the literature on Lean published in the US with what you find in Japan, which Norman is certainly familiar with, from having organized the translation of several classics in the 1980s. I have in my hands a newer book that I picked up on my last visit to Japan, that has not been translated yet. It is from 2009, by Mikiharu Aoki, a 25-year Toyota alumnus who became a consultant in 2004. The title means “The heart of introducing the Toyota Production System” (トヨタ生産方式導入の奥義), and it is heavily technical.

By contrast, the bulk of the American literature is shockingly light on technical content, which is dismissed as a tactical toolbox you shouldn’t worry about too much. Instead, the literature you should focus strategic issues like change management, motivating people, and calculating metrics.

Crispin Vincenti-Brown identified four dimensions to manufacturing:

  • The engineering of production lines.
  • Logistics and production control.
  • Organization and people.
  • Metrics and accountability.

In the US, the engineering dimension is ignored. Logistics receives some attention, but Lean programs are overwhelmingly focused on the last two: organization and metrics. It is out of balance, and I believe this is the reason these programs fail.