Building Lean Muscle

While I was in school I remember hearing a story from a fellow student who had an internship with a company overseas. She helped them start to implement a variety of lean processes, but wasn’t able to stay long enough to see it through. A few months later, she checked in with the company to see how things went. They told her that everything went great and all of the time they were saving in their improved processes allowed them to save a bunch of money in wages. Well, that is just a way of saying that they fired a bunch of people because they weren’t necessary anymore. They completely don’t get it. That is a naive way to react to lean benefits. On paper, I am sure it seems very appealing to be able to save money this way. But this isn’t the way to use lean.

What some companies don’t see is that lean manufacturing is about incorporating people and processes, not just saving time and money. Improving the processes is what saves the time and money, but it is the people that improve the processes. If improving processes results in themselves or their friends losing their jobs, they won’t be particularly thrilled to participate in lean activities. And it may even cause them to rebel against the first round of lean improvements, thereby reversing their effects.

An argument that management might make is that having excess people is just like excess inventory and should be eliminated. It is an understandable conclusion, but not a reasonable one. People themselves are not the waste; however, what the people are doing can be considered waste. Utilize the extra workforce to continue improving. Create a “lean team” that continues practicing lean manufacturing. This would be a specialized group, ideally comprised of a variety of expertise, that investigates, implements, and follows up on improvements. Lean requires much data collection, analyses, documentation, and review to ensure that the benefits of lean are maximized. There is plenty of work to go around in order to continuously improve. And continuously improving means that you continuous save more time and money.

I should clarify what “saving time and money” really means. Not only does it mean eliminating costs, it also means that more can be done under the same level of costs. In other words, it means doing more with the same, not doing the same with less. What I mean by this is that saving time and money allows you to reinvest the savings into growth, which leads to more revenue. Therefore, lean isn’t just a tool for saving, it is also a tool for growing.

Additional Resources