Lean Gurus

May 21, 2009
For many manufacturers embarking on a path of continuous improvement, the lean journey begins with a call to a consultant.

The basic principles of lean -- waste reduction, customer centricity and flow optimization -- are fairly simple in theory. But when it comes to putting lean principles into practice, even the most well-intentioned manufacturers can run up against some roadblocks.

"Lean is about simplification, but the journey is complex," explains Jamie Flinchbaugh, founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich. "Change management is complex. Changing a culture is complex."

That's why many manufacturing firms begin their lean journey by seeking the counsel of a consultant.

While it seems that lean -- or some permutation of it has become about as ubiquitous in the manufacturing world as forklifts and safety goggles, lean consultant and author Jean Cunningham notes that the concept of lean still is a bit foreign to many organizations, especially on the shop floor.

"[Lean] isn't what you learn when you go to business school," Cunningham says. " . . . Certainly no one who comes out of high school knows anything about lean, and most of our people who work in our companies don't have advanced degrees -- they have high school degrees."

A manufacturer needs to demand "real, measurable improvement" from its lean consultant. If not, "you hired the wrong sensei."

-- Tim Whitmore, vice president and general manager, Simpler Consulting

"Cunningham, whose consulting practice emphasizes the importance of applying lean principles to accounting, human resources, IT and other non-manufacturing areas, acknowledges that organizations can learn about lean by reading books, attending workshops and visiting companies that have implemented lean strategies. However, "to really learn lean, you want to begin taking action within your own company," she asserts.

"And that's where I think a consultant can really help you," Cunningham explains.

Steven Abbott, senior director at BBK, a Detroit-based consulting firm that specializes in helping distressed manufacturers implement lean strategies, asserts that a consultant brings more to the table than simply helping organizations conduct kaizen events or create value-stream maps. Hiring a consultant -- particularly in the case of troubled manufacturers -- is "an excellent way for management and leadership to signal a change within the company and to use the consulting event to define and formulate a revised purpose or a reason for being."

"It provides that significant emotional emphasis that says, 'We're serious about doing business differently,'" Abbott explains.

With the help of a consultant, an organization can start implementing such changes in short order, he adds.

"An experienced consultant can help you move a company rapidly," Abbott says. "I'll use the supply chain as an example: If I can look from the plant to the sourcing to the transportation to the warehousing, onto distribution, retail management and order flow, I can guarantee that literally in just days I can identify low-hanging fruit that can help eliminate waste, begin to free up scarce capital and increase efficiency."

Likewise, Anand Sharma, CEO and co-founder of the Durham, N.C.-based TBM Consulting Group, emphasizes that his firm's LeanSigma approach -- a hybrid of lean and Six Sigma principles -- promises "bottom-line results at a very high speed."

"We can bring results that most companies will bring in four to six months in four to six weeks," Sharma asserts.

"You need to understand the business conditions, the organization, the culture, the infrastructure, the players, the motivations ... and craft a strategy that's right for the organization."

-- Jamie Flinchbaugh, founder and partner, Lean Learning Center

A core tenet of TBM's lean philosophy is that "lean is about doing everything faster, quicker and more responsively," according to Sharma. On that score, Sharma notes that TBM has helped manufacturers chop their internal lead times from two weeks to two to four hours.

"That's the type of responsiveness I'm talking about -- not tweaking it, but really completely changing it," Sharma says.

Hiring the Right Lean 'Sensei'

Jim Womack, chairman and founder of the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute and author of "The Machine that Changed the World," notes in his foreword to Jeff Liker's book "Becoming Lean" that one of the requirements for a successful lean transformation is the guidance of a "sensei" (Japanese for "teacher" or "coach") to demonstrate lean techniques.

It's a passage that Tim Whitmore, vice president and general manager of Ottumwa, Iowa-based Simpler Consulting, references often when an organization tells him that "'we can figure out how do to this on our own.'"

"I learned [lean] from my Japanese sensei," Whitmore says. "And I learned it by immersing myself in the process and learning how to see waste. Once I could see it, then I could take the tools that were being taught to me and use those tools to eliminate that waste and improve the process and measure the result of that. So I strongly agree with Womack in that you really have to be guided by someone who's been there, done that."

Still, Whitmore cautions that a manufacturer needs to demand "real, measurable improvement" from its lean sensei. He believes that "a good sensei is going to pay for their services tenfold or more."

"My feeling is that if you're not seeing this level of performance improvement in your income statement and your balance sheet, then you hired the wrong sensei," Whitmore asserts.

"To really learn lean, you want to begin taking action within your own company. And that's where I think a consultant can really help you."

-- Jean Cunningham, lean consultant and author

A key characteristic of the right sensei, according to the Lean Learning Center's Flinchbaugh, is "a high degree of integrity," which he defines as the ability "to tell a company's leaders difficult things about themselves, about their culture and about their leadership."

"We say an organization needs to hold a mirror to itself. You are that mirror in many cases," Flinchbaugh says of consultants. "You can't be afraid to say what needs to be said. You really can't hold back."

However, that honesty needs to be tempered by an ability to empathize with the plight of company leaders, Flinchbaugh adds.

"I've had every role from board of directors on down, and I understand the challenges," Flinchbaugh says. "I've had to try to drive lean while at the same time renegotiating a union contract and launching a new product. And so we have an empathy for understanding the situation that executives are in, and all the things that are coming at them and how it fits into their mindset, as well as their issues and concerns."

Flinchbaugh points out that a good lean consultant recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for implementing lean strategies in companies and even in divisions within the same company.

"You need to understand the business conditions, the organization, the culture, the infrastructure, the players, the motivations -- you need to understand all of that and craft a strategy that's right for the organization."

A Two-Way Path

While a consultant can be an indispensable guide for a company embarking on the lean path, Cunningham and others interviewed for this article note that manufacturers shouldn't expect to sit back and watch a consultant implement a turnkey solution. Rather, in the Japanese tradition of apprenticeship, a company needs to take an active role in learning and practicing lean principles and then pass those concepts onto others in the organization.

From the very beginning of its relationship with a client, TBM Consulting instructs the company to choose a "kaizen promotion officeperson," or KPO, to be trained on lean strategies and to share that knowledge with others in the company, according to Sharma.

"And then as we work with them, we multiply this person so there is in-house capability," Sharma says. "For instance, at a company like Hubbell, which is one of our clients, it started with one [KPO] and six years later there are maybe 30 people internally who are capable of carrying on that work."

Likewise, Flinchbaugh believes that it's important for a consultant to empower clients to put lean strategies into practice rather than to serve as a crutch.

"We've seen companies that use the same lean consultant for 10 years to run kaizen events for them. I feel that's just wrong," Flinchbaugh says. "If the company hasn't learned to do that, then either we're not teaching or they're not learning."

Cunningham concurs, adding that such a dynamic prevents an organization from becoming truly lean "because the whole idea of being a lean company is that all of your employees are fully engaged in improvement."

"I see the consultant in a lean environment as the kick-starter," Cunningham says. "It's like a third-party set of eyes looking at what you're doing to give you some feedback and then to constantly be introducing you to new concepts to allow you to go deeper and deeper in your lean journey."

See Also

About the Author

Josh Cable | Former Senior Editor

Former Senior Editor Josh Cable covered innovation issues -- including trends and best practices in R&D, process improvement and product development. He also reported on the best practices of the most successful companies and executives in the world of transportation manufacturing, which encompasses the aerospace, automotive, rail and shipbuilding sectors. 

Josh also led the IndustryWeek Manufacturing Hall of Fame, IW’s annual tribute to the most influential executives and thought leaders in U.S. manufacturing history.

Before joining IndustryWeek, Josh was the editor-in-chief of Penton Media’s Government Product News and Government Procurement. He also was an award-winning beat reporter for several small newspapers in Northeast Ohio.

Josh received his BFA in creative writing from Bowling Green University, and continued his professional development through course-work at Ohio University and Cuyahoga Community College.

A lifelong resident of the Buckeye State, Josh currently lives in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. When the weather cooperates, you’ll find him riding his bike to work, exercising his green thumb in the backyard or playing ultimate Frisbee.  

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!