The “Lean Pill” Side Effects

I stumbled across an article called Lean and Sick by Praveen Gupta. Gupta points out his gripes with lean systems, “Lean has become more of displaying numbers, reorganizing the floor and such, but still most businesses shrink as there is little focus on customers and not much impact on growth.” He has a good point. Lean does in fact help display numbers and organize your floors, it is a key part of 5S programs, which are very popular. He later concludes, “We should use various tools for achieving perfection and reducing waste, but avoid big name programs.” This conclusion is understandable considering the effects that big name programs like 5S have had to stumbling companies. However, his conclusion is incorrect. 5S is an excellent tool for helping improve efficiencies and shortening lead times – if your company needs it.

Think of lean techniques like a tool chest that a carpenter has. Does he choose the tool of choice before exploring the work that needs to be done? No. He finds out if he need a wrench, then brings a wrench and solves the problem. Could he use a hammer to accomplish a job that requires a wrench to fix? Of course not. But that’s what these companies who have lean ‘horror stories’ are doing; they choose the tool first and hope its the right one for their problem. It just doesn’t work that way.

Successful lean technique implementation careful analysis and understanding of the problem so a calculated decision can be made as to the correct lean tool to use. Lean is about finding what is wrong, then finding the technique to right it, then implementing said technique. Implementing big, famous programs like 5S without an evaluation process may lead a company towards a lean ‘horror story.’ If principles in 5S won’t fix your problems, then implementing 5S won’t help, plain and simple. This can cause a misconception that certain lean principles are a waste of management time and money. Before blaming the implementation, blame the implementer first. There are even lean tools, such as value stream and process mapping, that can direct you towards where your problems are. Value stream mapping helps you discover the problems that cause the largest negative effects in your facility. It is a great tool to get you started in the right direction.

It is very American of us to think that we can use lean so lazily and get immediate success. It’s a lot like the idea of just taking a diet pill and magically you will become healthy. It’s a myth. Diet pills are supplements cause other healthy lifestyle choices to be more effective. There is a general lack of understanding towards how lean works. Simply learning of success stories and trying to copy that is not enough. Being lean means adopting a culture of continuous improvement. It isn’t a reachable goal. It is a stream of reachable goals; there are always ways to improve, even in areas where improvements had already been made.

Before attempting to implement lean manufacturing, educate yourselves and your employees on what it really means to be lean. Learn the various techniques and which problems they help solve best. Then find your problems. In order to choose a path, you need to know where you are going first. Once you know your largest problems, choose a lean technique catered towards them. Start with the most important problems or problems with the greatest range of improvement, then start moving to problems lower on the totem pole. The most important word to remember is continuous. Continued work leads to continued success.

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