The Lean Fallacy

There is a lot of talk and momentum around “lean” adopting “lean methodologies” and “the lean start up” movement.

This has given rise to Consultants and Start Up Guru’s preaching the “Lean way”.

Companies nationwide that have signs up throughout referring to Kaizen, 5’s and “Lean Thinking”

The Problem is it’s all CRAP!

I’ll get to making my point as to Why shortly, but first I’ll just quickly outline my credentials in the subject.

My professional background is as an Engineer in the Manufacturing sector, working for companies such as Unilever to help drive their Lean Process’s in the factory.

Working for Unilever at Colmans Mustard I saw first hand how they had wholeheartedly thrown themselves into the Lean way, engaging Japanese consultants and flying them in from Japan to guide the process.

This resulted in turning the company round from an ailing thorn in the side of the giant Unilever to their top performing company avoiding the axe and winning new contracts in the process such as Pot Noodle when they couldn’t do the same and Unilever unwilling to accept excuses any longer swung the axe.

I’ve also worked in other manufacturing companies, household names that also have the Lean signage and tools all around but are just treading water slowly drowning in a murky pool of their own making.

Seeking greater understanding of the Japanese Lean methodologies I took a contract with a Japanese car manufacturer with a base in the UK.

What I learn’t there was damming of the British managers.

These managers had managed to take a hyper efficient Japanese car manufacturer and turn it into a joke, poor efficiencies and a blame culture so bad that workers lived in fear of making any decision — so much so that they would phone their manager before doing so — on every decision.

How had the British management managed to turn this company into such a poor performer when they had everything at their disposal in order to run it as a stand out example of Lean Manufacturing?

This is the problem we have with Lean in the West

Fundamentally it’s ignored or rather managers haven’t taken the time to really understand and take on board what the fundamentals of Lean are and they refer to the bullying blame culture that has destroyed the domestic car manufacturers and is driving countless other industries into the ground.

Realistically it comes down to the fact that “there are few that are able to, or given the freedom to lead”

Until this systematic failure is addressed and the culture in the west changed we will keep losing companies that once were greats.

One of the fundamental problems I come across time and time again in failing companies is…

The Short Term’ism of management

For some reason our corporate culture is set up to produce managers that think short term and make decisions based upon opinion rather than fact, they tend to look out for their best interests rather than the companies and are un-willing to see further than what’s right in front of their noses.

The Japanese way that was fundamental to the Toyota Production System that created the Lean philosophies is counter to this — they think longer term and learned that in order to truly move forward you need to know the truth about where you are at this moment.

This lead to the 5 why’s — at Unilever we used this to get to the route cause of problems and then find a solution.

At other companies I have been in they use 5 why half heatedly to find the cause they think is the truth and are often un-willing to listen to the real truth, normally at the end of the 5 why process they find someone to point the finger at and move on happy that the finger of blame has been apportioned to someone other than them.

A Better Way?

The following is what I have taken from the Japanese Lean methodology and how to apply it correctly, or rather how it’s been applied when it’s worked.

Systemised Common Sense — my biggest take away when I first started working with Lean Manufacturing was that fundamentally it was a system that allowed common sense prevail, unfortunately…

Common Sense Ain’t So Common

Accountability — in order to really move forward you need to create a culture were accountability and getting to the truth about where you are is the norm, not to apportion blame but to know where and what the problems really are and using this truth to base your decisions off.

Team members need to have the freedom to do their best work, without the constraints of blame, without blame people will grow and rise to the challenge. With blame they will recede and hide handing every decision back to a manager living in fear of doing anything, ultimately this will cripple any organisation as I have seen time and time again.

If a mistake was made by anyone while at Unilever the culture was to be accountable, put your hand up and admit you dropped the ball ( as you will from time to time ) we then would look for anything we could learn and anything we could put in place to stop the same thing happening again. In doing so the company was able to move forward at a pace improving efficiencies and ultimately revenue year on year.

Organisation — another fundamental to the Lean process is 5’s basically this is a structure for organising everything, remove the clutter you don’t need and store what you do in an easy to access and organised manner “a place for everything and everything in it’s place”

Improvement — For me the single most important aspect of the Lean process, striving every day to be a little bit better that you where yesterday.

This is so important to creating growth but shouldn’t be limited in forward facing process’s such as reducing breakdowns or growing traffic to a website but also in stripping out the unnecessary parts of the process that are not needed and reducing waste in all it’s forms.

One of the biggest problems I have come across is the need to have employees fill all time at work with doing something — this leads to people doing tasks and having tasks assigned to them that really don’t need doing. This is one of the biggest inefficiencies in the workplace there is no greater waste than in doing work that doesn’t need doing at all!