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Ask Art: How is lean the opposite of everything people have been trained to do?

by Art Byrne
October 25, 2016

Ask Art: How is lean the opposite of everything people have been trained to do?

by Art Byrne
October 25, 2016 | Comments (0)

This is a great question because it goes to the core of why organizations have so much trouble making the transition to lean. The leaders may be interested in going down the lean path but when they learn that this approach is the complete opposite of what they have been taught over many years they find it hard to accept, and they adopt only those aspects that appear to fit their cultures and traditional ways of thinking. As a result, most companies make little progress and, even after many years, remain stuck in the "tools" stages.

I have seen this type of response occur constantly in my 30 years of supporting lean turnarounds. When the transformation requires a serious challenge to prevailing wisdom in a specific area, people invariably reply: "No way, that can't be done; this is taking it too far." Shortly after I became CEO of the Wiremold company, I stopped at one of our rolling mills in the shop one day.

"How long does it take to change this over?" I asked. The response was 14 hours, sometimes 16 hours.

"Oh no", I said, "we have to get this changeover under 10 minutes."

You can imagine the response. "Who is this crazy man and how did we get him as our CEO? Doesn't he know anything?"

If I had just left it as a challenge, nothing would have happened: experience said 14 hours was the best that could be done. Instead, I organized a series of kaizens to reduce the setup time. We had to make some alterations to the machine (without any big capital spending), which took time because the mill was busy making products for our customers. In fact, it took four or five kaizens over the course of a year. The end result was a 6-minute changeover. In most traditional companies, resistance to even trying this would have won out and the setup would have stayed at 14 hours.

The lean approach is so opposite traditional management that it should not be a big surprise why so many companies struggle to make the change.

The basic problem is that most companies view lean as a cost reduction program, or just some manufacturing thing. They can't seem to understand that lean is in fact a powerful strategy of how to run any business: manufacturing or non-manufacturing. Throw in the fact that to be successful EVERYTHING must change and you can readily understand why lean is such a heavy lift for many companies. You can't just add lean on top of a traditional structure and expect success.

A starting point that reveals lean's opposite approach is that traditional organizations make things in batches. They are organized in functional departments by type of equipment, or by specialty in non-manufacturing organizations, and they push the work through this complicated structure using MRP and other systems that try to overcome the complexity (i.e. waste) created by this type of organization. The lean organization does just the opposite. It is organized by value streams and makes product flow smoothly through the various processes at the pull of the customer, all by using simple visual tools like kanban cards. This leads to many contrasts:

TRADITIONAL

LEAN

Complex

Simple / visual

Forecast / Budget-Driven

Demand Driven

Speed Up Value Added Work

Reduce Non Value Added Work

Long Lead Times Minimal Lead Times

Quality Inspected In

Quality Built in

Large Purchases

Daily Deliveries

Excess Inventory Sell One - Make One

With all of these contrasts it is easy to see why lean is so hard to do for most companies. It is like someone coming in one day and saying, "Look, everything that you have been doing is no good and has to be changed." How many management teams do you think would say "Oh, okay how do we do that?" and how many would say, "Now wait just a minute, we are a good company! You can't just walk in here and say that."

Easy to guess the answer, isn't it? Then throw in the fact that most traditional companies put a heavy emphasis on "make-the-month" where at the end of a given month they spend a lot of time looking backwards, reviewing the period's results and trying to gain wisdom from something that already happened. The lean company, on the other hand, minimizes these month-end reviews and focuses on fixing their process as the way to ensure better future results. They look forward - not backward. I think you get the picture.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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