A Lean Manufacturing Mind-Set

Rick Bohan

I genuinely try to put myself in the shoes of the supervisors and managers I work with.  They have lots to do, they’re under a variety of pressures, and I’m not the first guy who’s come around promising that their work lives will change dramatically for the better if they’ll just put my ideas and lessons into practice.  I make a concerted effort to understand their circumstances as I ponder why implementations often go slowly….sometimes VERY slowly…in spite of my sustained attention, not to say outright nagging.

That said, I sometimes get frustrated with those same supervisors.  Even supervisors and managers who seem to be genuinely open to my coaching and advice often move very slowly in implementing them.  I’ve come to the conclusion that a “lean mind-set” is not common among manufacturing managers and supervisors.

What’s a “lean mind-set” you ask?  Well, I’m still trying to figure it all out myself but it seems to be a variant of “out of the box” thinking, the box in this case being “traditional manufacturing mind-set”.  Supervisors with a “lean mind set” will look at a condition or circumstance and quickly get how a shadow board or set up time reduction or implementing a pull system or using a simple daily checklist might help.  Often they’ve already implemented something themselves.  Other times they’re aware that things could be better but haven’t been introduced to the right tactics and tools.  When those introductions take place, they jump right on them.  Or they say something like, “Well, Rick, I don’t think that method will work here.  But you’ve given me an idea as to what will work.”

I ran into this example of the distinction between “lean mind-set” and “traditional manufacturing mind-set” during my recent reading ramblings:

“They need a conveyor,” said the guy on my left as we observed the assembly process. Operators walked back and forth from the assembly station to bring finished parts to the shelf and to get components for the next build.

“Why not just move the assembly station next to the parts?” I thought. “Why the impulse to automate and make easier what shouldn’t be done at all?”

via Design Out Waste and Build Lean Manufacturing In | Lean / Six-Sigma content from IndustryWeek.

There you have it. “Traditional manufacturing mind-set” sees something that has to be moved from Point A to Point B and figures out a machine or a system to make it happen.  “Lean mind-set” sees something that has to be moved and wonders why the two locations can’t be moved closer together.

Here’s the tough part:  I’m starting to think that a supervisor either has that “lean mind-set” or he/she doesn’t.  I don’t want to say that it’s impossible to instill but my experience so far is that it’s darned difficult.  Lean 101 training doesn’t do it.   I think on-going training, coaching, and conversations with supervisors and managers can do it but it takes a long time.  (I’ve been working with one client for two years to get some squares painted on the floor for a very simple and needed supermarket.  Three plant managers, two supervisors, and two maintenance managers later, I still haven’t succeeded.)

I’ll conclude by relating a quick story of two supervisors I worked with a few years ago who definitely had a “lean mind set.”  The client had, in effect, two factories within one building.  Each “factory ” made very different products using substantially different manufacturing processes for the automotive industry.  Steve and Anthony supervised production at one of the “factories”.  No kidding, I would stop by and talk with them a few minutes on Monday about, say, visual factory.  On Wednesday, they’d collar me to show me what they had implemented.  On Friday, they’d collar me again to show me how they had made further improvements to what they implemented on Wednesday.  Next Monday, they’d be seeking me out, asking what they could do next.

In one case, I spent a few minutes explaining pull systems to them.  A couple of weeks later, Anthony took me around his finished goods area to show me how he had re-arranged it so that team leaders could visually schedule the operations.

Along the way, I had inadvertently provided some misinformation about one aspect of pull systems.  It would have been very easy for them to say, “We did just what Rick told us to do.  It’s not our fault it didn’t work,” and washed their hands of anything having to do with lean.  Instead, they dug in, figured out what I had told them that was mistaken, figured out the right way to do it and implemented that.  (To be sure, they were very proud, and vocal, about the fact that they had taught the consultant how to get it done!)

It’s important to note that all this was before they had a plant manager that really understood the value of and supported their efforts.  (They have such a plant manager now.)

Supervisors like Steve and Anthony (and their present plant manager, Ed) definitely have the “lean mind set”.


Leave a Reply