The Worst Form of Muda

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I've just returned from India where I attended the first Lean Summits, in Mumbai and Chennai, organized by the Lean Management Institute of India.

One of the souvenirs I collect on my visits to different countries is special reasons why lean is impossible in each country. And a number of Indian managers told me what I expected to hear. Some explained that managers there don't have the discipline to create a lean enterprise. Others solemnly told me that a lean logistics system would be quite impossible on India's chaotic and crowded roads. The media -- who everywhere seem to focus on bad news and impossibilities -- seemed to agree. Every interviewer started by asking me how undisciplined Indian managers using chaotic Indian infrastructure could hope to copy Toyota and other lean organizations.

This is all part of what I think of as the worst form of muda: Thinking you can't. This of course guarantees you can't. Henry Ford probably said it best when he noted, "You can think you can achieve something or you can think you can't and you will be right." Thinking you can't is the worst form of muda because it thwarts your tackling the other, more-familiar forms of waste.

The fun in collecting these defeatist sentiments is that it is always possible to demonstrate at some place in the country in question that they are completely wrong. Indeed, this is one of the most important tasks of the lean institutes.

As part of my Indian trip I visited the WABCO-TVS manufacturing facility outside Chennai. The managers there decided in 2000 that they could create a lean enterprise. I first visited this facility in 2002 and found that they were well on their way. And I am happy to report that because they thought they could and continue to think they can, they have largely succeeded in the manufacturing portion of their business.

At the outset they retained a few foreign advisors with good lean educations but quickly internalized what those advisors had to teach. They then embarked on a rigorous policy deployment exercise to determine which steps should be taken in what order, based on business needs, to transform what had been a very orthodox mass production manufacturing operation.

Eight years later they have achieved basic stability (capability plus availability) in each manufacturing step. This has permitted them to successfully cellularize and introduce single-piece flow in all machining and assembly operations, accompanied by very precise standardized work. It has also permitted managers to install a pull system throughout the facility using kanban and water spiders moving products and information at frequent internals, with very little work-in-process inventories. Meanwhile visual controls have been installed to a remarkable degree, 5S is maintained, and every production employee from top to bottom participates in a kaizen activity every week.

What I always find the most fun in manufacturing transformations is when I encounter machines and tools made by the plant that are right-sized, capable, available, flexible, and cheap. As C.Narasimhan, the former head of the operation and the force behind the transformation, remarked during my tour, "Why do 'catalogue' engineers buy fancy machines that immediately need unnecessary kaizen in order to work properly in their context? Why not just build them right from the beginning?" And this facility has done just this, with many examples across the operation.

Meanwhile, downstream toward the customer and upstream to suppliers, WABCO-TVS has been introducing frequent deliveries to precise customer need using milk runs on chaotic Indian roads. A small amount of safety stock is needed beyond what would be required in a less taxing environment. But the system works just fine, reducing total inventories and costs while improving quality through rapid feedback.

WABCO-TVS is not perfect or complete. The lean transformation in product development, supplier management, and business processes outside of production still lies in the future. And a problem-solving culture at every level of management is a work in progress. Therefore the management team has a list of additional actions to be taken in the next year, even as the company grows steadily to meet rising demand. These actions are clearly shown on simple charts in a situation room, broken out by specific tasks for each area of the organization. This makes visual one of the most comprehensive and disciplined policy deployment processes I have found.

Future challenges notwithstanding, the operations aspect of WABCO-TVS is "lean" by any reasonable definition and getting steadily leaner. This remarkable feat has already been achieved in a country where many managers still think it will be impossible.

Let me conclude by hoping that you and the management of your organization think you can. Every company in every country can come up with unique reasons why it can't. Yet all we need do to remove the world's most harmful form of waste -- the one that prevents our tackling all of the others -- is to reboot our thinking and point ourselves resolutely in the right direction by acting on the deeply empowering belief that we can.

With best regards,

Jim Womack
Chairman and Founder
lean enterprise Institute

P.S. The Lean Management Institute of India is a recent addition to the group of fifteen national affiliate organizations now in the non-profit Lean Global Network. Please go to for details on lean affiliates around the world.

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