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Oct 17, 2010

Why Lean Manufacturing Fails

Lean works. Lean is right. Lean is good. Lean consistently proves its worth through continuous, stepwise gains for companies brave enough to take on the challenge of looking within themselves to correct deep founded issues with their status quo and historical patterns of behaviors. So, why doesn't Lean help every company that implements it?

The truth is, Lean doesn't work for some companies because THEY (i.e. the companies it doesn't work for) don't allow it to work for them. And that is why Lean fails.

Recently, something caught my eye that I've known for quite a few years now. It was refreshing to see, but only because misery loves company and in terms of Lean, is still rather unfortunate news. Last summer, an annual survey of companies trying to implement Lean showed that Middle Management Resistance was the biggest obstacle that they faced.

I guess there is an obvious sense of naivety on my side for thinking that Middle Management Resistance would eventually go away, but that would be assuming that there isn't a general ignorance and lack of a kazien mentality (i.e. betterment, continuous improvement mentality) exhibited by most managers. Managers do things because they believe that they know what is best. "It's always worked that way, so why try to change it."

There is comfort in familiarization and docile activities that typically bog down managers. Lean requires a huge, cultural change that breaks down the barriers of the common ways of looking at things. It also requires a great deal of involvement from everyone within an organization. This is especially true for the CEO (or senior staff entirely) AND the lowest ranking members of the company. Middle managers are the glue that holds these groups of people together.

I could go on forever on this topic and describe to you how this all ties into the Theory of Constraints and The Goal, departmentalization vs. cellularization, etc., but I'll just give you a few sentences.

Middle managers have their hands tied. Too often, they are bound to their traditional metrics and methods of thinking. This leads to production managers and supervisors pushing for their employees and work centers to be producing at 100% capacity just for the sake of running production and keep uptime on par with traditional company goals. This just creates over production, mismanaged inventories, misinformed operators, and in the end, a complete resistance to Lean Thinking. In the end, for too many middle managers, production trumps Lean and Six Sigma because it's all "ship, ship, ship....this product is a rush....ship, ship, ship". It's rather ironic that all of these managers' practices are the very nature and source of their need to have a always rushing mentality.

An open message to all managers: Study Lean, sign up for seminars or conferences, make an effort to earn that paycheck you receive for your work. Ignorance is bliss, right? WRONG. In manufacturing, ignorance is a sin. It represents the cognitive acceptance of absolute failure and is ultimately detrimental to your organizations' success and continued growth. It's time for you to quit calling Lean a fad or referring to Lean tools as buzzwords because you are too lazy to better your thinking, better yourselves, better the people that work above and below you, and most importantly, to better your company.