Making Lean Stick – Achieving Long Term Impact

By on June 11, 2012
Achieving Long Term Lean Impact

Throughout a wide variety of industries, ranging from manufacturing to healthcare, “Lean” is the topic of the day. Many organizations will attempt to implement Lean work processes. And many will fail. Lean simply won’t stick. Why is this?

I’d like to start to answer this question by sharing an experience I had over thirty years ago. It happened at a briefing on what were then cutting edge manufacturing processes. Sponsored by one of the Big Four CPA firms, the program featured, in addition to partners from the firm’s Tokyo office, a plant manager of a Toyota facility in Japan. After the presentation, questions were taken from the audience. Audience members, most of whom were from manufacturing facilities throughout the Midwest, eagerly asked questions about various manufacturing processes that had been described during the presentation. After about twenty of these types of questions, the Japanese gentleman stopped taking questions and said to the audience, “Why have none of you asked me about the beliefs upon which the practices we’ve described are based?” There was absolute silence. He continued, “The fact that you haven’t asked this question leads me to believe that you don’t really understand what I’ve been talking about.”

We didn’t. He continued, telling us that the real force behind Toyota’s manufacturing processes was a set of beliefs. They included beliefs having to do with the nature of the relationship between managers and workers. They included beliefs about the degree to which workers should be depended upon as the primary source of recommendations of ways to improve manufacturing processes. They included beliefs about the degree to which workers should exercise control over manufacturing processes. He told us that unless an organization was led by individuals who shared these beliefs, their attempts to implement the Lean manufacturing processes he had described would fail. A couple of years later, at MIT, Jim Womack would label the processes described in the program I had attended, “Lean Manufacturing” and a revolution was in the making.

But it’s a revolution that hasn’t had nearly impact that it could, and should, have had. Why is this?

I didn’t really begin to fully understand what this Lean revolution was about until 1986 when I was the lead consultant of a group conducting team building training at the New United Motors Corporation in Fremont, CA, a joint venture of Toyota and General Motors. It was in this plant, called “NUMMI,” that I experienced first-hand the impact of Lean. The place was immaculate. Workers were smiling and they were energized. Management and Labor had a very positive relationship. Under previous management, absenteeism routinely was very high. Under a new management team, absenteeism dropped to a very low rate. And the products they made, the Toyota Corolla and Geo Prism, were ranked high in the J F Powers quality rankings. These remarkable changes weren’t the result of a different workforce. In fact, 85% of the workers in the NUMMI plant at startup were UAW members from the old GM Fremont plant. They happened because the new management team was acting in ways that were consistent with the core beliefs of Lean manufacturing.

This experience…and many others since then…have convinced me that any attempt to transform a work environment needs to address both processes and beliefs if it’s going to be successful. It convinced me that Lean is a lot more than Value Stream Mapping, Six Sigma, 5S, Work Cell Design, or Kanban. These are important processes, but by themselves their impact will be transient. Achieving long term impact requires that the organization build a solid foundation for the support of these processes. And the foundation upon which Lean must be built is a series of beliefs about the nature of work and workers. Building this foundation is not optional. Without it, Lean will just not stick long term. Later commentary I’ll be sharing in this “Making Lean Stick” blog will address what needs to be done to build this type of foundation.

The discussions that I hope this blog will trigger will be much more valuable to all of us with wide participation. I’d very much value and appreciate any ideas you have on the topics being addressed. We can learn much from each other. Look forward to hearing from you.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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