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Addressing common lean manufacturing implementation myths

In this book chapter excerpt, find out the truth behind common lean manufacturing implementation myths and misconceptions.

Lean Manufacturing: Implementation Strategies that Work  

There are a lot of common perceptions about what goes into a lean manufacturing implementation. In this book chapter excerpt, find out the truth behind some lean manufacturing implementation myths and misconceptions, and learn how to identify your lean objectives and create effective lean strategies.

Table of contents:
Addressing common lean manufacturing implementation myths
Overcoming lean manufacturing challenges


The Basic Flaws and Misconceptions About Lean

Batch manufacturing has been both the principle factor for success and the nemesis for a decline in the dominance of American manufacturing. Growing out of the techniques employed by Henry Ford when he strove to make an affordable automobile for the masses, batch manufacturing became the principle reason the United States was viewed worldwide as a model for industry. But as time prodded on, it was to become the chief reason the United States lost the leadership role it held in manufacturing for well over six decades. 

During World War II, batch production was refined to as a science; it helped establish a "more is better" mindset. But that alone probably would not have made this system of production the waste generator it is today. Starting in the mid- 1970s, the average consumer was exposed to an ever greater offering of styles, functions, and designs. Today a high level of product diversification is fully expected. The downside was this approach significantly increased the need for more on-hand inventory, added more equipment that had to be maintained, and created substantial variations in processing -- all of which served to grow the wastes noted to monster proportions.

But it wasn't until the late-1980s, when Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers began to invade the scene that U.S. manufacturers came to discover they were facing an opponent who went about the task of manufacturing in a totally different manner. Out of arrogance on one hand and a serious miscalculation on the other, the need for change was principally ignored, until it could no longer be denied that the United States was starting to lose its manufacturing base.

What made matters worse was even though most firms came to confirm the need for Lean Manufacturing in the mid-1990s, we haven't done an adequate job of fully and effectively implementing the process across a broad spectrum of industry. Thus, the purpose of this book is aimed at how to go about completely destroying batch manufacturing and replacing it with a world class system of production, in a reasonably fast and effective manner.

A question that comes to mind is: Are we looking at setting aside everything we're learned about Lean and starting over again? The answer to that is contained within the content of this work. I can assure the reader, however, that developing a world class system of production doesn't require setting aside what has been learned in the past. Nor does it require starting over again. What it boils down to is revising our implementation strategy, especially where the sole focus has for the most part been a shotgun approach to continuous improvement. But in making changes, nothing has to be undone. The best way to view the effort required is greatly enhancing the work that's been accomplished thus far.

Implementation Strategies

Meaningful ideas aren't created in a flash of brilliance. They're born as a result of first-hand experience, a sense of dedication to the process, and a willingness to step forward, even when it goes against the grain of traditional thinking. As we move forward, let's consider some common perceptions that have been formed with respect to implementation strategy.

Perception #1
The mission of Lean Manufacturing should be to make steady, incremental improvements that result in an immediate savings to the company.

Counter Argument
Making Lean a success requires a focus on changing a factory's entire approach to manufacturing. If done correctly, this change requires spending money on the front end; this investment most often will not result in an immediate payback.

Perception #2
Implementing Lean does not require additional staffing, outside of perhaps hiring an experienced Lean Coordinator to oversee the process, perform training, and track overall results.

Counter Argument
While efforts are being directed at implementing Lean, the factory is still working to meet customer requirements under the rules and operating guidelines of the existing system of production. As a result, the ability to shift roles and responsibilities within the current ranks is extremely limited, and usually provides less-than-adequate support for Lean.

Perception #3
Factory participants with no real experience and background in engineering can be trained to successfully conduct work measurement and to effectively apply the sciences of setup reduction and mistake proofing.

Counter Argument
Performing dependable work measurement -- critical to operating decisions pertaining to manpower, taking on added business, and the like -- requires expertise in performance rating and methods evaluation. This expertise is inherent to the science of Industrial Engineering. In addition, conducting meaningful setup reduction and working to make production processes mistake proof, which is critical to the fundamentals of Lean Manufacturing, cannot be effectively accomplished without the skill and expertise of Manufacturing Engineering.

Other Perceptions

There are other misconceptions about implementing Lean that will be addressed as we move along. One of the principle factors, however, has been the unerring belief that Lean Manufacturing is a never-ending process. Therefore, if it took Toyota four decades, it's perceived that the United States will need a similar portion of time to gain the same competitive level of expertise. As a result, the overall expectations of management and stockholders alike have been minimized. The pressure to find a means of implementing Lean in a quick and effective fashion has fallen by the wayside.

There is a very serious flaw in this type of thinking. Fully implementing Lean Manufacturing is in no way a neverending process. What is never ending about it is the continuous improvement aspect, which can best be done when a plant has made a full and absolute change to its existing system of production.

A very frustrated hourly worker pulled me aside once to complain, "It shouldn't take years to do this. If they can move a factory to Mexico and have it up and running in nine months, we should be able to make the same kind of change we need here, in order to help keep our jobs." When I passed the comment on to his direct supervisor, his reply was, "Freddie's a good guy, but he doesn't understand we've got other things to do as well." I proceeded to ask why Lean wasn't being more aggressively applied in the factory. He summed his answer in one word, "Equipment." When I pointed out I'd been informed the equipment involved had setup reduction and mistake proofing applied, he responded with a sly smile, before adding "For all the good that's done! They really shouldn't have wasted their time."

I've since come to believe what he really meant to say was that it was impossible for him to be enthused about Lean when everything he had to work with was geared to accommodate a totally different style of production. We have to understand that the best intentions of our production managers and supervisors cannot be readily applied if we're asking them to fight a battle with one arm tied behind their back.

Lean Objectives

For every case of striving to introduce Lean and spread it across a factory, there are two objectives that always take priority. The first has to do with meeting established demand, by achieving a master schedule that is intended to reflect actual customer orders. The second objective is to achieve assigned budgets and forecasts, without incurring unfavorable variances.

Lean is touted as a process that shouldn't pose a significant interference in meeting customer demand, along with projected budgets and forecasts. But it frequently can and does. When implementing Lean seriously interferes with past practices, it can be perceived as more of a nuisance than a benefit. And when such a perception sets in, the process is doomed to become a secondary mission, with little heart and soul behind the effort.

What is simply amazing is the number of manufacturing leaders who believe that achieving a complete transition in production can be done on a part-time basis and with limited and less-than-qualified resources.

Equipment Engineering

Toyota created a substantially different approach to the mass production techniques used by American industry at the time. Their approach led to the Toyota Production System, which has since become the foundation for almost every initiative undertaken in the field of Lean Manufacturing. But there is an important piece of the puzzle that's been lost: a plant's Key Production Equipment.

Any difficulty in moving a Lean initiative forward will almost always revert back to equipment that isn't geared to respond to the conduct required. I use the word geared in reference to the compliance of equipment to the highest levels of both reliable and repeatable performance. Equipment that can achieve these levels will lead to improved flexibility, substantially lower operating costs, and an often eye-opening reduction in factory lead-time.

The issue of equipment engineering seldom, if ever, is addressed seriously on the front end of most Lean initiatives. As a result, the process has been hampered. Consider if you will, the following questions:


  1. Why do firms enter into Lean with nothing but good intentions, only to see it seriously falter before it becomes a way of life?
  2. Why hasn't America's Lean transition become an answer to outsourcing hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs to foreign soil?
  3. Why is it so hard for U.S. industry not only to buy into the concept of Lean Manufacturing, but also to use the nation's considerable ingenuity in making it a reality?

The United States has proven repeatedly we have the ability to deliver, if and when we put our heart into an effort. But for various reasons we haven't as yet established a universally accepted means of implementing Lean and effectively measuring progress. In turn, this failure has left many organizations questioning where they stand and what they've truly accomplished.

Take the U.S. space program as an example. Everyone would agree that it too is a never-ending process. But a very narrow focus was placed initially on putting a man on the moon. That goal, in essence, became the United States' space program and the nation rallied around it with an uncommon fervor. However, meeting this objective was done with the expressed knowledge that while the program would not effectively end with that achievement, it could not truly begin without it.

The same holds true for Lean Manufacturing. We must have a recognized level of accomplishment, at some welldefined point in the process, in order for manufacturers to buy wholeheartedly into the concept and work to achieve a foundation from which the next solid commitment can be launched.

But first one has to acknowledge that if a factory can never look someone in the eye and say they've arrived, so to speak, there is little chance they will have the fortitude to push forward aggressively toward the next level of achievement. As a result, the overall mission requires a spot where an operation can pause, if only momentarily, to celebrate a clear and noteworthy accomplishment -- not an end in itself, but rather an achievement that becomes the next launching pad for the future.

This was last published in May 2010

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