Thought Leaders -- Lean On Me

Lean guru Jim Womack believes the world -- though not necessarily manufacturing -- is marching in a lean direction.

The Machine That Changed the World, published back in 1990, has proved to be one of the books that has changed the manufacturing world. The lean movement in the United States was jump-started when James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos introduced the Toyota Production System to a U.S. manufacturing industry that was still pretty much baffled by the Japanese automakers and their unconventional insistence on eliminating waste everywhere they saw it.

Today, of course, lean manufacturing has caught on in a big way, and thanks to his subsequent books as well as his founding of the Lean Enterprise Institute, Womack is very much the face of the U.S. lean movement. IndustryWeek caught up with him recently and asked for his impressions on the current state of lean manufacturing. You can also see the full transcript of the interview here.

IW: Interest in lean topics in the United States appears to be at an all-time high, but is the actual adoption of lean manufacturing on the rise?

Womack: We're seeing a transition from lean tools to lean management. Most people understand the tools. They understand that you need quality at the source and to put things into continuous flow, that pull is better than push in terms of scheduling, and that the correct way to maintain machines is proactively rather than reactively. But we've been struggling to make the leap to management systems that can deploy these tools every day, month after month, year after year, and get the results we should be getting.

The question is: Can we implement a lean management system that can use the tools effectively on a continuing basis? In most businesses, there is a complete disconnect between the metrics the business is using and the lean methods they're deploying. For example, if you tell purchasing you're looking for the lowest piece part price today, that runs completely contradictory to having a small number rather than a large number of suppliers.

One of the hallmarks of an inadequate management system is that you have, for example, a big kaizen campaign. You 5S everything, then cellularize and put everything into continuous flow. You get rid of your MRP system and you try to run a pull system, and so forth. The individual techniques work and every-thing looks great on the day the consultant leaves, but six months later there's been significant deterioration. Two years later, you've regressed to the mean. No one in management was assigned on a continuing basis to maintain the process, and there are a bunch of corporate metrics that don't support doing the right thing. So once the hubbub is gone and the spotlight moves on to a new area, you get this regression phenomenon -- what we call the sustainability issue -- that we're still struggling to deal with.

Lately there has been a much higher awareness that lean management is the real issue -- not lean methods as such -- and there's a lot of curiosity about what it's going to take to change the way companies are managed, to actually get the full benefit on a sustainable basis from these techniques. It's going to require both experimentation and a fair bit of change in what managers do, and what they think management is. Most managers think their greatest contribution to the business is doing work-arounds on broken processes, rather than doing the hard work to get the process right so that it never breaks down.

The biggest single change needed in management mentality is to be able to step back and say, "The reason we're fighting fires all the time is because we don't have any fire marshals. We have an incredible fire department with the best equipment and the fastest, brightest trucks, but we don't do any fire prevention." That describes American management at this point: brilliant at fighting fires, but not adept at all at preventing them.

IW: Historically, Toyota has gotten most of the credit for being a lean pioneer, but what about the rest of the Japanese automakers? Do they all practice lean manufacturing?

Womack: Japanese car companies approached quality based on Deming Prize criteria and so forth in the 1960s and 1970s. They tried to get from end-of-the-line inspection to inspection at the source. They did a pretty good job. Toyota developed an engineering system that got the product to market faster with less effort -- a product with more refinement and fewer mistakes, but done faster and with less effort.

Toyota was always the leader in productivity and effectiveness at the plant level. Toyota also has a supplier management system that is still best-in-class, and a good part of its recent quality issue has been bringing in non-Toyota suppliers and trying to teach them the system. They're struggling because it's hard to get people to change old ways of thinking.

Toyota was without question better in the early going at running plants, designing products and managing suppliers. They were also better (in Japan only) at supporting customers in a system that they've never been able to export. Therefore, Toyota was the best in class, Honda was an earnest emulator, and Mazda was a pretty good company that made a mistake with the wrong engine technology that took them out of the game. Nissan, Isuzu, Mitsubishi and the rest of these companies were pretty good at quality, but not at management.

Now it's more apparent that lean is not a Japanese thing as such, nor is it a Toyota thing. It's a set of ideas that Toyota has done the best job at implementing. But they are certainly not perfect, so there is a gap between the lean ideal and what Toyota is able to do every day. It wasn't just a gap for the other Japanese companies, it was a chasm. In fact, they never got across the canyon.

IW: Do any U.S. companies excel at lean?

Womack: There are five elements to the system. There's a factory element, which is what people can see. There's a product development element, which is harder to see, and a supplier management element that's harder still. The customer support element is really hard to see because it's still early. Finally, there's a management system, which is how managers align the company. So when you look around, you see pieces of the puzzle that some companies have been able to put together pretty well.

Danaher, a growth-by-acquisition company, has been more successful than General Electric in the last 25 years. It has a policy management system from some ex-Toyota guys that is probably the most effective thing out there. It's utterly simple, but it's very effective in terms of getting the business aligned. Boeing has mostly focused on the production part of the process. The 787 is just coming into production now, and they have really rethought the whole production process (in addition to the design process) to build a big airplane the way Toyota would. All of these aerospace companies struggle with their supply base, so getting it right is the central challenge. Boeing is an example of a company that has made a lot of progress in becoming lean -- most of which is visible in the fabrication assembly activity. We see a lot of partially lean businesses, but not many totally lean ones. Danaher probably comes the closest [in the U.S.]. But the "secular" trend is that the world is marching in a lean direction -- not in the opposite direction.

Read the full transcript of the interview and learn what Jim Womack has to say about the state of manufacturing in China, the transition from lean tools to lean management, and the expansion of lean into other industries and solutions.

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