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Bookshelf: Best Practices in Lean Six Sigma Process Improvement: A Deeper Look

Bookshelf: Best Practices in Lean Six Sigma Process Improvement: A Deeper Look

By Richard J. Schonberger, John Wiley & Sons, 2008, 290 pages, $45

What companies excel at lean? Don't assume you know the answer to that question because this book offers a compelling case to look beyond Toyota, and in fact to look beyond all Japanese companies, to find the best examples of lean practices worldwide. As author Richard Schonberger points out, Japanese companies on the whole have a poor track record of being able to sustain a lean trend. What's more, Toyota has fallen victim to overbloated inventories for more than a dozen years, and in an astonishing chart, lean's "platinum standard" ranks at the very bottom of 55 global vehicle manufacturers on the scale of long-term inventory turnover.

This book makes the case that "lean won't work without quality," and to that end the author focuses on the companies that have achieved "the world's longest, steepest rates of improvement in leanness" -- companies like Dell, Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard and NEC. Dell, for instance, has an inventory turnover trend line that is "unmatched in the world," which Schonberger attributes to its ability to tightly synchronize its own operations with customer demand and its supply chain. Meanwhile, inventory turns at Toyota have dropped from a height of 22.9 in the early 1990s to 10.1 in 2006, dropping behind General Motors' 11.8 turns.

The book poses a curious semantical analysis of the term "supply chain management," suggesting that the emphasis on the word "supply" implies "that it is the customers' job to manage and improve relations with their suppliers." Schonberger writes, however, that manufacturers "need to be aggressive practitioners of customer chain management. Most producers, though, seem all too timid about pressing their customers for collaborative practices they know will competitively improve both parties."

Overall, the industries that seem to be doing the best at lean for the long haul are semiconductors and electronics, paper-converted products and petroleum companies. The worst are chemicals, heavy vehicles, textiles, and pharmaceuticals.

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