Why Call It 'Lean Manufacturing'?

July 26, 2010
The label is not just inconvenient but actually harmful.

Three well-known company improvement initiatives are, in my opinion, very badly named. It's almost as if the developers of each of these initiatives sat down and asked, "What can we call this that will cause the most confusion about the method, not to say, animosity toward it?" The three initiatives are Self-Directed Work Teams, Six Sigma, and Lean Manufacturing.

No one in any organization is truly self-directed, so why do we think that teams of operators suddenly will be? It can lead to the idea that teams can do whatever they want because theyre self-directed.

Even worse, I've seen it lead to managers and supervisors saying things like, "They want me to help them? Let them get that information themselves. After all, they're self directed, aren't they?"

If there were ever a label designed to convey little information, it's Six Sigma. What the heck is a sigma? And why are there six of them instead of three? Or 10?

You know full well the answers to these questions and are able to convey them to everyone in the organization. But doesn't it strike you as odd that we have to explain and, often, defend the very name of the initiative before we even get started on the methods and concepts themselves? (Three parts per million? Are you crazy? Even our customers dont require that.)

The term Six Sigma conveys the wrong idea that the tools and methods it comprises are mysterious, arcane and can only be understood by a highly educated elite. (Of course, we then reinforce this wrong thinking by creating... Black Belts.)

What Were They Thinking?

Finally, we come to the most egregious example of all: lean manufacturing. You know... Less Employees Are Needed. Lean and mean. Doing more with less. All the sorts of things managers, supervisors and operators are eager to have inflicted upon them by their senior leadership and some know-it-all consultant, right?

What could the developers of lean concepts possibly have been thinking? It's difficult to say, but they certainly weren't thinking anything like, "The culture change necessary for a truly effective implementation of these concepts and tools will be difficult enough, so we need to pay close attention to how we label this thing weve created."

Again, you're probably thinking: Oh, relax. We know that lean refers to something other than getting rid of employees. Besides, if the label is so bad, why are so many companies implementing the tools and concepts? And besides that, does it really matter what we call it? Isnt it just a matter of semantics, after all?

I think the label is not just inconvenient but actually harmful for two reasons:

  1. It's inaccurate.
  2. It creates misconceptions about the nature of the tools and concepts that it comprises. These misconceptions lead to company leaders implementing it for the wrong reasons and shop-floor operators resisting it for the wrong reasons.

Let's look at each of these more closely.

Lean Isn't Really About Being Lean, It's About Being Agile

Any company that seeks to implement lean methods only to reduce costs or, heaven forbid, reduce payroll is bound for disappointment and probably failure. The methods are easy to understand and deploy, but the effort and discipline required to make them effective are quite difficult.

A lean implementation is disruptive; it requires substantial change to just about everything a manufacturer does. This means that, at least initially, a company's efficiencies and costs may actually get worse.

Lean is about building strategic capabilities. It's about doing things that others in your industry can't do as easily or as well. In particular, it's about being more agile than competitors.

I was facilitating a value-stream-mapping team at a large steel company here in Ohio. After we had developed a current state map, a discussion ensued as to just what the team's objectives were.

In the view of some team members, the goal was simply to reduce the cost of making steel. I was striving to get across the idea that our objectives needed to be more strategic, so I asked, "Right now, we tell customers that this process takes six weeks but we've shown that it can often take 12 weeks or more. If we could develop a process by which we could get the steel to the customer in four weeks every time, should we do it, even if it costs the same?" One manager on the team said, "Now, for the first time, I really understand what lean is all about."

Most of you are thinking, "But lean methods do reduce the costs of manufacturing products and serving customers!" That is true, of course. But focusing only on cost reduction makes the implementation of lean methods more difficult. When senior leadership is focused on building sustainable competitive advantages by building agile processes, the chances for success are higher.

The 'Lean' Label Creates Harmful Misconceptions

As a consultant to industry, I've had my share of discussions endeavoring to convince employees at all levels that lean doesn't mean Less Employees Are Needed. (Im not helped in my efforts by the many books and articles that tout reductions in head count as a primary benefit of lean.) Ive had my share of conversations with managers, seeking to temper their enthusiasm for making the company leaner and meaner.

Central to any successful implementation of lean methods is a change in the organizations culture. Culture change always meets resistance, even under the most ideal circumstances. It's simply easier to do things the way we did them yesterday, however ineffectively, than it is to do them differently.

Culture change is made all the more difficult when the very label of the initiative imparts fear and foreboding. If we're truthful, there's not much in the lean message that's designed to appeal to supervisors and operators, the folks who ultimately have to make lean methods work.

When we speak of reduced costs, they hear, "Get rid of people." When we talk about increased efficiencies, they hear, "Work harder and faster." When we speak of the benefits of doing more with less they hear, "Make more and better product, but don't expect anything from the company to help you." When we lecture about the need to reduce waste, they hear, "You folks are doing your jobs in a wasteful manner."

If were honest, none of their translations are inconsistent with the very name of the initiative. And we wonder why they don't jump on board after a two-hour introductory class.

Lean is About Reducing Worker Frustration

In fact, in spite of its label (and the way its usually communicated by those of us who should know better), lean is very operator friendly. As we mentioned, at the business level, lean is all about increasing agility. At the shop floor level, lean is all about reducing worker frustration.

The list of problems and events that frustrate supervisors and operators daily is a long one. Tools that can't be found or don't work. Information that is received late or not at all. Equipment and tooling that are inadequate to the job -- when they work at all. Breakdowns. Constant changes to the schedule. Rushed and expedited orders that sit in a warehouse or on the shipping docks for another two weeks. Materials that are sub-standard. Inadequate help from people and departments that are supposed to see the manufacturing function as their primary customer.

Lean methods address each and every one of these problems and many others.

My message to supervisors and operators, then, is that lean manufacturing is an approach for reducing the frustrations they routinely experience as they move material, information and product through the plant. Lean is working when they are less frustrated, when they go home at the end of the day with a smile and a spring in their step rather than wrung out from physical and emotional exhaustion. Lean is working when the work goes smoothly, easily and safely.

Is there anything to be done about this bad label for a very good set of tools and concepts? I don't think re-naming it is an option. I've tried with my own clients by referring to it as agile manufacturing; sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn't.

I do think, though, that we can change how we talk about and teach lean methods and concepts. Frankly, too much of what is said and written reinforces the negative connotations of the label. We can tell managers and workers that lean isn't primarily about reducing costs, getting rid of people or being meaner. It's a top-line strategy designed to give the organization sustainable competitive advantages that can't be easily emulated by competitors. It's a set of tools that makes managers, workers and customers lives better. When communicated and implemented correctly, it works. But only then.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. Bohan has a bachelor's in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's of science in organizational development from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has published articles in National Productivity Review, Quality Progress and ASTD's Training and Development Journal. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance. Bohan can be reached at [email protected].

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