Another Misinformed Article On Lean Manufacturing

Rick Bohan

I’ve said any number of times that one of the problems with lean is  alleged “experts” who say stuff that just ain’t so. I just ran across an article that crams a lot of “just ain’t so” stuff into a few paragraphs.    Here’s the article:  Next Generation Lean: Why Lean Too Often Requires a Leap of Faith.  (I’m going to quote some of the most egregious statements (and there are a lot of them) so you might want to just stay here.)  Right off the bat, you know the article is likely to be pretty off track…lean NEVER requires a leap of faith. It’s benefits are proven many times over.  But, let’s dig in, anyway, to see what other nonsense we can uncover.

The author purports to review the “three top barriers” to the advancement of lean practice.  Now, I’ve got no problem talking about barriers to effective deployment of lean concepts and methods.  Done so many times myself.  But let’s look at what this author offers and see if it’s helpful  (Spoiler alert:  It’s not helpful.)

In the depths of their hearts I believe that most of the Lean advocates understand that Lean has—for the most part—over-promised and under-delivered.

No. Lean hasn’t over-promised and under-delivered.  Consultants and practitioners misrepresent what lean delivers but that’s not the same thing at all, is it?  Essentially, this “over promised/under-delivered” bumper sticker meme is just a cover for lazy managers and the consultants who enable them.  Lean is very clear in what it seeks to achieve and it always delivers.  Inept managers and consultants…not so much.

One outgrowth of this is that rather than personally accepting and trying to address Lean’s shortfalls, most of these same people have instead tended to point the blame finger at others. And the prime target of much of this finger-pointing seems to be the very managers from whom they are trying to gain support!

Wait…what?  Why is it somebody else’s job to gain support from the people who stand to gain the most (after customers, of course) from an effective lean implementation?  Can you imagine someone writing about trying to “gain support” for new product development, better approaches to marketing and sales, or quality control?  If managers are waiting to be persuaded to support what’s in the best interests of customers and shareholders…maybe we need new managers.

All that management has asked of Lean is that it “show them the money,” something that up until now hasn’t consistently been accomplished. Lean practitioners seem to want their managers to accept on faith that supporting Lean will provide an acceptable ROI, or at least that it will over time.

This just isn’t true.  I know lots of lean practitioners and not one of them, none, has ever said that the benefits of lean must be accepted on faith.  Not one.  And no lean practitioner who wasn’t a charlatan would let a manager or anyone else say anything like that.  As for “at least it will over time“, can anyone show me an investment of any sort that shows immediate ROI?  All ROI is “over time”.

One result of this is that while you’ll seldom hear higher level executives publically express negativity about Lean, in discussions between executive peers there is a growing disdain for it as a cost management strategy.

Let me say it as emphatically and as clearly as I can….LEAN IS NOT A COST MANAGEMENT STRATEGY!  Not now, not ever.  Managers can wish it were, hope it is, want it badly to be a cost management strategy but it’s just not. The specious statement from the article is like saying there is a growing disdain for getting a good education as a weight loss strategy.  Lean is a “capacity and capability building so you can sell more stuff” strategy.  It’s true that a lean company has lower structural costs than a non-lean company but that’s because they invested in (i.e., spent resources on) developing processes that produce what the customers want, when they want it, how they want it, at a price they want it.  Any manager who implements lean as a cost management strategy is badly mistaken and will almost certainly fail.  Then he or she will blame lean.

In talking to both practitioners and academics I’ve heard all of the non-answer answers, such as, “Lean is a journey—you’ll know you’re there when you get there.”

OK, here’s one I’m going to give the author.  I admit I’ve heard things like this.  Mostly, though, I’ve heard it from managers who were implementing lean.  Sometimes they say things like this because they don’t know any better. Other times, it’s a dodge to avoid sharing what they feel to be proprietary information about actual results. (To wit, would you necessarily want your biggest customers to know that your own margins are higher now that you’ve cut half the waste out of your manufacturing processes?)  Yeah, lean is a journey but all journeys make progress towards destinations or they’re really just someone wandering around.  We can and should talk about that progress and those destinations in tangible terms.

And in order to protect its purity they decided to etch the details of its practice in stone. I know this sounds a bit sarcastic but take the case of Value Stream Maps. VSMs represent a pretty basic—and effective—approach to defining material and communication flow. Although their template was for the most part formalized nearly two decades ago they are still the most frequently used tool by Lean practitioners.

If anyone can tell my why this is a problem, please let me know.  Accounting balance statements have had their present form (more or less) for centuries and nobody complains about that.  The statistics methods that underlie most good quality control have been around for centuries.  (Pareto came up with his 80/20 axiom back in the 15th or 16th century, for gosh sakes.)  The reason that VSM’s are so commonly used is that they work really well.

OK, I’ve rambled enough.  I got exercised about this article because it’s written by a putative expert but passes along a lot of wrong thinking about lean.  I hope I’ve been able to clear some of it up.


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