Lean, Agile, and the evolution of business.

More and more recently I find myself hearing echoes from my past.

Back in the early 1990’s I spent several years as a college intern studying a dozen different business and manufacturing process ideologies, and applying the lessons to a poorly performing aluminum can manufacturing plant for Reynold’s Metals. During that time, five of my peers and myself poured over the following ideologies and out of them defined our own process improvement plan:

  • The Toyota Production System (Lean Manufacturing)
  • Just-In-Time Production
  • Poka-Yoke (Baka-Yoke)
  • Single Minute Exchange of Dies
  • Six Sigma in Manufacturing
  • ISO 9000/9001 process models
  • SQM/SQC

We combined these models and developed a computerized maintenance management plan that included predictive, preventative and safety based maintenance. We spent months learning from the people who were really in charge: The union workers out on the floor doing the actual work. We listened, we learned, and we worked with them to develop new processes that made sense.

We took a plant that was nearing an 8% defect rate (At 6 million cans a day that’s nearly half a million cans lost every day) to less than 1% in under two years. It was a lot of hard work, but very fun and very rewarding.

Since that time, my career evolved to work on computer networks, something I found to be a natural parallel from high speed manufacturing. Packets or products, flows are flows.

But over the last few years, all the buzzwords that we worked with 3 decades ago are popping up around me. Agile Development, Lean Startup, Pull Processing, KanBan, etc. But while they’re the same words, somehow everything is different. Many of the original ideas we learned back in 1992 and developed by Mr Toyoda, seem to be missing.

What used to be a beautiful philosophy, in true Japanese style it was elegant in it’s simplicity, has been co-opted, re-packaged, and re-appropriated in true American style into something completely different.

Stay tuned, in the articles that follow I will deconstruct the modern buzzwords, and try to resurrect the beauty and wisdom of their origins.