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Mike Thelen

Quality Insider

Changing to Lean, Part 3

Lean vs. L.A.M.E.

Published: Monday, April 14, 2008 - 21:00

Mark Graban, consultant and host of www.leanblog.org , and a good lean friend, once posted a web log topic on “lean or lame” (a phrase he coined). That topic drew a variety of comments from his readership. He described L.A.M.E. as “lean as misguidedly executed,” and it’s his description that so many companies use to describe their efforts at developing implementations that aren’t based on true lean principles, but on using lean tools to maximize short-term benefits, reduce headcounts, and even to look good to current or potential customers (with no real intent to walk the walk). Many web logs, forums, and other mediums of communication gravitate toward conversations that fit this model.

In our corporation, I’m blessed to work with an external consulting group. Their objective is to help us understand the lean, or Toyota’s production system, philosophy, and guide us down the path. This group is made up of previous Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada (TMMC) and Toyota Supplier Support Center personnel. One consultant was previously a team leader at TMMC, another was a supplier logistics manager, another was from the human resources arena, and yet another was from the supplier side to TMMC. Each of these people spent more than 20 years living and learning in the Toyota system.

Why is that important? Because they have the true understanding of lean, not the twisted, shortened, cheapened, Americanized version of lean that many consulting firms seem to be making lots of money from. I know that will offend many people, and there are consulting groups who are just as guilty as manufacturers of using L.A.M.E. and calling it lean.

I’ve seen and heard many comments from others on web logs, forums, and news outlets (some just dabbling in the lean arena, others researching, and some simply trying to discredit lean). Some say that the attitude they’ve witnessed by technical experts is usually condescending or disrespectful. They say that humility or respect doesn’t appear to be one of the prerequisites for lean or kaizen consultants. I’ve also been informed that they fail to develop people as a whole, with no concern for understanding how people interact with each other, their environment or their unique circumstances.

True lean doesn’t support this. One of the major components of lean is respect for people. Most U.S. companies fail miserably at this. It seems as though this happens for one of two reasons: Either the company is quick to say “we’re not Toyota, we don’t build cars,” or the company is simply interested in the tools for immediate effect, not long-term survival and success. True lean works hard to develop people at all levels and recognizes that true experts are those who make the product/run the machine. True lean respects and listens to the customer. That customer is defined as: shareholders, internal and external customers, employees, and community members. All have equal weight.

From Toyota, concerning the mission statement of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky (TMMK):

“It is an important aspect of TMMK's company philosophy that TMMK, as a part of American society, is deeply committed to be a good corporate citizen making its best effort to benefit the community where it actually operates and its team members and customers live. TMMK believes that helping improve the quality of life is an essential corporate responsibility.”

Note that it doesn’t say anything about making their shareholders rich. It doesn’t say win at any cost. It doesn’t say be No.1 in the auto industry. It simply says that they will be responsible in their actions and answer to the physical community in which they do business.

I’ve also heard of lean used as a production tool. It’s a manufacturing system. All lean does is help produce parts. There was even a response that corporate management had no responsibilities to lean, as they need to focus on more important decisions, such as the long-term goals of the organization.

Lean is about waste elimination, not just in operations, but in all aspects of a business. Look at the current drive in lean initiatives—accounting, human resources, sales, etc. Lean is about sacrificing the short term for the long term. Lean short-term vision is up to 10 years, where lean long-term vision is 10 to 50 years. At a recent corporate-level discussion, I discovered that our company traditionally considers long term to be three to five years, where the direction at Toyota is conceptually out 50 years from today. Will they meet long-term objectives at that range? Maybe, maybe not. But they have a vision that they are constantly working toward. So lean is a long-term, corporate-level responsibility as well. All levels of management are responsible for deploying lean and working under the continuous improvement strategy.

Just recently, a hospital administrator was commenting on their lean journey. The hospital passed a certification process established by a joint commission. They had only eight requirements for improvement noted, where most hospitals have 10 or more. Now, this hospital is pretty proactive and is moving in the right direction. However, when the comments started flying about eight being too many (more so when you consider that his response was merely that they knew about all eight and all are scheduled to be corrected in the next few months) he quickly showed his L.A.M.E. background. He was quick to comment, “Not offered as an excuse, but just part of the explanation: Please remember that this is not a manufacturing process, with constant production of a constrained set of identical products. Remember, too, that a key component of our workforce (i.e., the doctors) are not employees and are therefore not subject to the kind of direction and supervision of employed staff.” He then went on to say, “The difference is between producing, say, 12, or even 20, identical products, really well over and over and producing highly personalized and individualized medical services 600,000 times one at a time.” For reference, one of the defects was unsecured gas tanks, a potentially devastating and destructive defect (enough to physically level a hospital, I’m told) and another was doctors not washing their hands between patients (makes me nervous).

Very few manufacturing facilities make 12 or 20 identical products. In previous experience, I have worked with 5,000 standard part numbers and 1,500 standard part numbers. Neither of those examples include custom part numbers, which usually tripled (or greater) the number of products. Also, 600,000 medical services? Sounds like an old statistics class, “Show me a statistic and I’ll show you one exactly opposite.” If we want, we can make any excuse in the world. Still, an appendectomy is an appendectomy. Lab work is lab work. Doctors check reflexes the same way, regardless of the number individuals in for medical services. Does anyone really believe that the patient registration or billing processes are unique for each patient?

It truly concerns me that so many people are getting only a limited perspective of what lean is. Then we, as lean practitioners, wonder why there’s such a negative connotation to lean. As I recently posted on a web log, I’m working with the local universities on being a guest lecturer at business club meetings and business classes. My goal is to bring true lean into the classroom before our youth get into the business world and are corrupted by traditional and L.A.M.E. business practices. The lean environment would benefit greatly if we could do more of this. Educate people on the tools and culture of lean, not just one or the other.

There’s no magic pill for lean initiatives. The lean process requires time, commitment, and determination. Companies that cannot envision the long-term commitment to lean, and only use the tools for short-term gain, will achieve some limited success. However, without the culture supporting those tools, the lean initiative will fail, becoming the “flavor of the week” that everyone knew would not last.

This quote from Konusuke Matsushita sums all this up nicely, “We will win, and you will lose. You cannot do anything because your failure is an internal disease. Your companies are based on Taylor’s principles. Worse, your heads are Taylorized, too. You firmly believe that sound management means executives on the one side and workers on the other, on the one side men who think and on the other side men who only work.”

Previous articles in this series:
Part 1: Roll-out (-through, -by, -over) Part 2: No magic pill

About the author Mike Thelen is the lean facilitator at Aberdeen, South Dakota-based Hub City Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit Corp. in Beloit, Wisconsin. He has led lean initiatives in positions from front-line supervisor to system coordinator in various corporations since 2001.


About The Author

Mike Thelen’s picture

Mike Thelen

Mike Thelen is the lean facilitator at Aberdeen, South Dakota-based Hub City Inc., a subsidiary of the Regal-Beloit Corp. in Beloit, Wisconsin. He has led lean initiatives in positions from front-line supervisor to system coordinator in various corporations since 2001.