Lean Manufacturing Principles: The System is Perfectly Designed to Get the Results it Gets

Rick Bohan
12.12.2014

I used to work for a large steel producer. It happens that the large steel producer would lose coils of steel that it had made for customers.  Now, I lose my keys once in awhile but I coil of steel is seven feet tall and weighs several tons.  How do you lose something that big?

Here’s how it happens:  a coil of steel gets produced and needs to be moved out into the steel yard.  It’s supposed to go into a specific bay so it can be retrieved again later.  But when the material handler gets there, another steel coil is in the bay.  Now the material handler has a problem:  does she take the offending coil out of the bay and put the right one in?  Does she just drop the new coil into another bay?  Does she take it back to the supervisor and tell him that there’s already a damn coil in the damn bay he told her to take this one to?  The choice with the mildest short term consequences is to drop the coil in another bay and make a mental note to correct the problem later.  But she forgets and by the time someone else comes to retrieve that coil…it’s lost.

I contend that this happens because the system is designed so that it happens.  You might think, “Wait a minute!  Nobody sat down and designed the process explicitly so that coils of steel would get lost!”  Maybe not.  But nor did anyone sit down and design a system that explicitly prevented coils of steel from getting lost.  So, the system was designed to allow coils of steel to get lost.

This principle has several corollaries:

  • If you’re  don’t like the results, look first at the system.
  • If you don’t like the results, it’s not the people, it’s the system.  And if it does turn out to be the people, look at the systems for hiring, training, and performance feedback.
  • If you don’t like the results, change the system.

Too often, lean methods are implemented as if the system was OK but the people just needed a little help doing things differently (shadowboards are a great example of this).  The bedrock of lean is a system of production that’s very different from the one you probably have now.

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