Scientific Management and Crazy Relatives.

Rick Bohan

I hadn’t been to Jim Womack’s blog in awhile, so I went to check it out this morning.  Boy, did I find a doozy of an article:  Dealing with Lean’s Crazy Relatives.  According to Womack, lean’s crazy relatives are (and you won’t be terribly surprised at this) Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford.

Now, I make reference to these two guys myself whenever I’m reviewing the history of lean methods and thinking. Mind you, I don’t put either of them on a pedestal, but I think they’ve each provided something to the art and science of stable, consistent work flow.  Womack is a bit less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt but we do agree that their hyper-focus on work standardization may have done more harm than good over the years.  As Womack points out, the role of standardization in lean is problematic for practitioners, it’s important…it can’t be ignored…it’s often misunderstood and misapplied.

I think there are two primary error that managers have made with respect to work and process standardization:

  1. Work standardization is all about improving efficiency and saving money,
  2. Work standardization is best carried out by someone other than the person actually doing the work.

As Womack points out in his article, these two errors have meant that work and process standardization has especially been resisted by people doing “non-standard work”, e.g., customer service, engineers, sales, communications, HR…just about anyone in any sort of administrative role.

One of the six Lean Principles I go over with new clients is “Standardize to Innovate”.  (I’ve just realized that I’ve never posted my Lean Principles…I’ll have to get on that.)  That usually takes a bit of explanation given that people usually think of standardization as the polar opposite of innovation.  I’m trying to separate standardization from efficiency and connect it to reduction of variation through continual improvement.

I’ve done a good bit of work with supervisors and operators around attempts to develop standard instructions for machine setups and changeovers.  The false notion that we’re trying to “standardize” as a way of making the changeover “more efficient” creates resistance.  Operators know that carrying out changeovers is as much art as it is science in many cases, especially given the tools, tooling, and equipment they must work with.  The notion of doing them faster just to be doing them faster is anathema to them.  My response is to tell them that we’re carrying on conversations about “standard practice” so as to make the changeovers easier.  If the changeovers are easier, they will be faster.  But easier is the primary goal.

The discussion of “How should we do these changeovers?” leads to identification of all the issues that create variability in changeover time.  That leads to discussions regarding, say, how to make sure the press die is ready and has been put next to the press before the changeover is started…each time, every time.  At that point, the operators see that the “standardization” discussion really is about making the task easier rather than about constraining them or “work speed up”.

Notice that the “standardization” discussion is just that…a discussion, a conversation among the folks who actually do the work.  As Womack says in his article:

We need to explain that [lean] always involves intense collaboration between everyone – line managers, front-line value creators (from assembly workers to surgeons), contributors from support functions – to deeply understand the work and then to rethink and align complex streams of work involving many people with different skills.

And that’s why I tell clients that standardization leads to innovation.


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