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First Word
Scott Paton

Thin Is In

Will lean manufacturing help companies ride out the recession?


This month's cover story on lean manufacturing highlights one of the fastest-growing movements in the quality field. I believe that its popularity is directly related to the state of the economy: As business slows and companies are forced to do more with less, initiatives like lean begin to look pretty good.

 As Robert Green, Quality Digest's managing editor, points out in his article, lean isn't new. In fact, some would claim that Henry Ford practiced lean manufacturing in the 1920s and 1930s. William A. Levinson even suggests in this month's "Last Word" column that U.S. companies should use lean's American roots when "selling" the initiative to workers.

 I doubt that too many workers need convincing. With layoffs and bankruptcies making news nearly every day, most employees are more than willing to embrace an initiative that could save their jobs. It's too bad that those in the executive ranks seem to need reminding every 10 to 20 years that quality initiatives make good sense.

 The economic "malaise" of the 1970s was often blamed on bloated government, high interest rates and the poor quality of U.S. goods and services. President Reagan and his successors (including the Clinton administration) fought with varying degrees of success to reduce the size of the federal government, cut taxes and make America more competitive. Paralleling these developments, of course, were initiatives such as quality circles, total quality management, ISO 9000, benchmarking, reengineering, Six Sigma and lean. The result was nearly 20 years of sustained economic growth and prosperity.

 But somewhere during the last five years or so, we began to lose our way. The initial gains made by quality initiatives in the 1980s and early 1990s weren't as important to executives giddy with triple-digit stock market gains and acquisition fever.

Witness the dramatic rise and fall of Enron, the demise of Montgomery Ward and Kmart, and the plight of nearly every U.S. airline (except, of course, for service superstars Southwest and newcomer JetBlue).

 Now that the stock market has tanked, bringing corporate America a much-needed reality check (business is about making and marketing products and services profitably, not just increasing stock performance at any price), perhaps a renewed appreciation of quality will begin to appear in the executive suite.

 Is lean manufacturing the next big thing? Will it turn CEOs into quality cheer-leaders? I doubt it. But, it might at least help turn the economic tide and save jobs.

 I'd like to know your thoughts on lean manufacturing and how quality is helping (or not helping) your organization survive these turbulent times. E-mail me at .


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