Let’s start off by defining Lean manufacturing. Lean (as described on multiple on-line resources) is described as a production practice that focuses on the elimination of wasteful elements in all process to increase the value to the customer. Sounds great! What organization wouldn’t want to implement a program to eliminate waste? The problem is that some organizations misuse Lean Manufacturing to overwork and reduce headcount.

Sure reducing headcount will save money in the short term. Let me assure you, it comes at a higher cost.

Let’s say a manager forms a team of skilled individuals to rebalance processes on the line to remove operators. Soon, the operators who are left on the line will start noticing, leading to refusal to cooperate with any effort to make improvement. They will begin to resist changes due to the fact they are scared to lose their job or contribute to a co-worker loosing theirs. This causes stress, conflict, finger pointing and ultimately failure.

This is a sure fire way to pit management against the shop floor. It is due to this lack of understanding that Lean has left a bad taste in many shop floor employees’ mouths. This leads me to the opinion that maybe the word Lean needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary.

I think that when we focus strictly on Lean we inevitably pay more attention to the dollar numbers. I am not saying that the dollar numbers are not important. They are, but there are other elements within an organization that far outweigh the bottom dollar, create flexibility and opportunity for future growth.

It is my opinion that running an organization Lean is actually a by-product of Continuous Improvement philosophy. When we focus our sites on Lean and Lean alone we are really missing the bigger picture. Culture is the most important element to true organizational maturity. Continuous Improvement philosophy zeros in on culture and stimulates its development.

Continuous Improvement philosophy focuses on the people and the success of the organizational team. It requires everyone’s engagement, commitment and trust. It is therefore culture driven and will help the company grow for years.

Everyone should be trained on its ideals and philosophies. For a continuous improvement organization to thrive organizational leadership must dedicate 85% to development of other employees through training, influence and OJT. Once the majority of the organization understands the philosophy then, and only then is it time to move to the next step.

The remaining 15% then can be dedicated to implementing the actual tools and engaging the employees. The employees that own the process need to make the change and improve the organizations current state. Not only does this encourage them but it also increases the chance that the change will be sustained and standardized.

We must be careful as organizational leaders to not put the cart before the horse. Don’t expect significant, highly profitable changes too fast. Let the cake sit in the oven for a while, trust me in the end it will taste much sweeter.

Let’s get “Lean” out of our heads and start communicating CI. It’s broader, includes everyone (especially the operators) and will give us long term gains. Let’s train, empower and engage rather than cut time, rebalance and lay-off.

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