Its no secret that American companies have had their share of fits and stalls with the implementation of Lean Manufacturing. Why is it that some companies are able to generate so much steam and momentum with their Lean efforts while some can’t even create the slightest inertia? As a Manufacturing Efficiency expert, I’ve had the privilege to lead several Lean implementations myself and support clients who were in desperate need of a Lean initiative. Here are some of my key observations for why American companies struggle to implement Lean:
1) Lack of true Lean expertise – Many companies simply staff lean roles in the factories and leave them to sink or swim. They either select people who already work at the facilities who have generally done a good job or they bring in someone from the outside who seems to have a grasp on the concept on Continuous Improvement. Granted just about anyone can learn the basics of Lean, it takes an experienced hand to navigate the politics and shape an palatable strategy for a true and sustainable implementation. These people not only need to have a strong grasp (and good experience) with executing lean tactics, they also need to have a strong competency for change management and political savvy.
2) Lack of leadership buy-in and support – At the lowest level, the factory manager needs to have a strong grasp of Lean and be fully bought in to leading an implementation. It needs to be a prerequisite for the job of managing the factory. At the highest level, Lean competency would be a strong consideration for any job or promotion within the supply chain division of the company (especially manufacturing). The VP of Operations would be a former implementor of the Lean initiatives. The Directors would be Black Belts (or at least Green Belts) with experience leading significant OEE improvements. The factory manager’s job performance would be heavily dependant on hitting milestones against Lean performance metrics. At that point, you’ve got a winning recipe for success.
3) Lean is counter-intuitive for American culture – Lean was developed and honed within the Japanese culture. Japan has a very strong culture for discipline, order, and process optimization. In contrast, America has a strong culture of instant gratification and individualism. Imagine the sumo wrestler or the samurai in Japan. Their characteristics are discipline, focus, endurance, loyalty, and control. This is reflective of the Japanese (and Lean) culture. Then imagine the cowboy or rock star in America. Their characteristics are rapid gratification, individualism, and heroism. These are reflective of American values as well. Lean is a discipline of manufacturing that is founded on the systematic elimination of waste. It is tailored to Japanese culture. In America, when something goes wrong (ie machine breaks down or materials don’t arrive), it is natural to point the finger at the person standing there holding the bag. We assume that someone messed up and we quickly move to take disciplinary action. Rarely do we take a step back and ask what conditions exist for this type of issue to occur and how can the system be designed to eliminate the possibility of this type of error. Fixing the system takes time, trial, and error. Its just easier to discipline or replace someone when there seems to be a problem. Also, since many corporate managers only stay in a critical leadership role for a short amount of time (often less than 4 years), their promotion is dependant on immediate and dramatic results. A thorough and sustainable Lean implementation takes at least 5 years – and that’s with skilled implementers and competent / dedicated leaders at the helm.
Most companies think of Lean as a manufacturing process improvement initiative. They see the tactics such as 5S, Kaizen Events, Root Cause Analysis, and Andon Systems. What they don’t see is that Lean also requires an organizational adjustment. This includes changing the rules of the game and what is required to get ahead in the company. The desire to get ahead is the driving engine for the American economy. No single American company will change that. Therefore, as in sumo wrestling, American companies need to leverage the desire to get ahead – to drive manufacturing efficiency. Lean has a fantastic set of principles and tools for driving manufacturing efficiency. For starters, manufacturers should align their employee performance management systems with Lean implementation requirements. The people capturing the greatest gains in savings, efficiencies, and productivity improvements need to be regarded as the rock stars. Even those unsuccessfully attempting to drive positive change should be recognized and appreciated for their efforts. For a company that is serious about a Lean implementation, there should be a direct connection between promotions and compensation to impact on factory efficiency improvement for all factory employees.
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