Is Lean Still a Good Idea?

Recently, a colleague who is a college instructor noted that one of his students asked, “Is Lean still a good idea?”
This prompted the teacher to solicit opinions from those of us that toil each day in the world of manufacturing.
I typed a short reply.  As I was typing, I realized that while the question was asked by a student, who as of yet has only theoretical knowledge of the challenges of designing manufacturing facilities and processes, there was really no reason to assume that, in the wake of the recent Toyota failures, seasoned professionals may not be asking themselves the same question.
In the event that this is a discussion going on in board rooms as well as class rooms, let’s take a look.
In recent years the image of Lean has been damaged right along with the image of Toyota.  What people have failed to realize is that Lean is a concept – the Toyota Production System (TPS) is a single example of a model developed in accordance with that concept.
When Lean was made famous by Toyota, it took the form of a model developed precisely for the realities faced by that company. I wish people would refer to that model as TPS and resist generically referring to that unique model as LEAN.
So why, if so many companies are following the Toyota model, are there still so many problems to investigate?  More to the point, when Toyota perfected the model, why are they experiencing failures of such magnitude?  And is this a measure of the relevance and modern applicability of Lean practices?
Lean is a set of conceptual objectives, with some intrinsic tools, such as the powerful visual and investigative tools that we have all come to know.  But it’s critical to note that these tools are only part of a larger system used to meet these objectives.  These familiar tools can be used as critical components of as many variations of Lean systems as there are manufacturing facilities.
At its core, Lean can be taken quiet literally – It is about getting rid of waste.
Lean is the optimization of value to the end customer and the minimization of the work it takes to deliver the value.  To ‘Lean’ a facility is simply to increase efficiency while decreasing waste and preserving Quality.
To do this we must critically evaluate every step of every process to determine whether or not that step contributes value, eliminate it if it does not, or redefine it if the same value could be contributed any other, simpler way.  In order to do this, we must be emotionally and politically prepared to challenge the status quo, and to resist accepting any part of our process solely because it has always been there.
The elimination of waste conceptually speaks to elimination of its root causes, which can include overburden (forcing a system to do something it is not designed to) due to variation (in customer demand, people’s ability, material quality, etc.).
I suggested that my teaching colleague pass this bit of knowledge onto his students… eliminating variation is not a once off exercise, because variation comes and keeps on coming….it doesn’t stop.  Materials will change, market demand will change, the work force will change, production equipment will change; the only thing that will never change is the certainty of change.
Change will produce variation, and small changes over time can produce a process that is no longer smooth, variation free, or Lean.
Developing systems that fit a particular set of circumstances at a particular point in time, and then never re-visiting those systems or, worse yet, implementing a system that was developed for the circumstances of another facility at a point in time that has long passed, will never succeed.
What worked for Toyota may not work for everyone (e.g., assembly lines, work streams, work cells).  In fact, that model didn’t even stand up to the changes experienced inside Toyota due to market growth and increased volume that their systems could not accommodate.
The TPS was originally developed during a time when Toyota was still considered a mid-sized company, with moderate production volumes.  As the Lean systems routinely produced a low cost product of high quality, demand grew, and output increased.  The famous TPS model was no longer enough to meet Toyota’s every day realities and needs.
It is my opinion that Toyota’s extremely rapid growth and the failure to change their Lean systems has been the root cause of their subsequent failures.  Toyota morphed from a medium-volume, low-variation environment, to a high-volume, high-variation environment.  Any Lean model must be developed and continually refined if it is to remain continually relevant.
The excitement that surrounded Toyota’s success resulted in a wide spread push to implement the model that they made famous. However, too many facilities implemented the TPS model without evaluating their own day to day practices.  These facilities had not in fact be ‘Leaned’, they had been ‘Toyota-ed’.
The TPS model focuses on the reduction or elimination of the three primary causes of waste:
  •  muda: non-value-adding work
  •  mura: unevenness/variation
When considering the value of ‘leaning’ your own facility, it is critical to remember that Lean Manufacturing refers to the goal, not the model developed to reach it.
The tools that we all have become so used to using (e.g., Kaizen, load leveling, production flow and visual flow) are only that; tools.  Using these tools without adapting them to the unique environment of your own facility will not make your facility Lean.
Lean is not theoretically driven, it is need driven.
There are many feasible methods of reaching Lean goals.  The needs of your own facility must be considered when you adopt, and then adapt these methods.
For instance, some of the most popular methods focus on directly eliminating “muda” or waste (e.g., value steam mapping, five S or error proofing), while others attempt to smooth the flow of production directly reducing “mura” or variation, in the hopes of indirectly reducing waste (e.g., process leveling, pull production).
Whether or not your need results in tools that attempt to directly reduce muda, muri, or mura (and thereby indirectly reducing the others), the goal is to develop and utilize tools such that waste can be regularly identified, and then targeted for elimination.
The concepts/objectives of lean will never become outdated; they are intrinsic to the core of a capitalistic economy.  The one who does the most with the least, the best, will always be the most successful.
Even though the goals of Lean will never become irrelevant, particular systems developed to reach those goals can be if they no longer are based on the needs of our individual manufacturing environments.
Focusing on the goals while we develop our need based tools and evolving those tools and systems as our need evolves will give us all the best possible chance of steadily achieving the highest quality with the lowest burden.
Let’s teach our managers not to say:
“We use the Toyota model.”
Let’s all make sure they can say:
“We have defined, implemented, and continue to evolve our own model.”
“We are, and will remain, LEAN.”

Authored By:

Gina Guido-Redden
Chief Operating Officer
Coda Corp USA
(p) 716.751.6150
[email protected]

“Quality is never an accident; it is the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution. It represents the wisest of many alternatives.”


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