Why Lean Can’t Succeed Without Operational Discipline

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Managing people and building the perfect manufacturing system are works of art. There are an unlimited amount ways to effectively get the desired result – being the perfect system and its flawless execution. However, manufacturing itself is an exact science; it is not an art. There exists one-right-way (ORW) of doing every single thing needed to execute the core functions of a factory. There is no need to re-engineer and execute a new process for each individual unit of production. This is immensely inefficient. In the absence of work standards, you are likely doing some version of this. The ORW minimizes cost and safety risk while maximizing service, quality, and morale. The essential job function of a front line supervisor or manager is to a) determine the ORW for all required actions needed for executing operations and b) ensure that everyone is doing it every time. This is why the world needs front line supervisors / managers. The supervisor’s effectiveness can be measured in terms of the number of deviations from the ORW of their direct employees. In other words, the manager’s performance can be primarily measured in terms of operational discipline, or the consistency of actions in which operations are executed. In an ideal state, one would possess the capability to evaluate the exact actions of every person / machine in the production process to ensure strict compliance to standard procedures. Since this is not practical in today’s world, we usually only evaluate compliance to standards after there has been a significant failure; sometimes resulting in some poor soul’s chastising or even worse, public shaming and/or termination. Many companies have turned to (or are turning to) Lean manufacturing to develop the operational discipline needed for operational excellence.

If you break down Lean Manufacturing into it’s two base components, what you are left with is:

1) Industrial Engineering – This is the process of designing and implementing the perfect manufacturing system. It requires understanding the expected outputs of the system and making the changes needed to minimize cost and safety risk while maximizing service, quality, and morale. The key aspect here is making changes to the system. Lean manufacturing applies many IE techniques that happened to be developed in Japan, such as kaizen, poke-a-yoke, 5S and others. Although IE techniques vary in degree of complexity, just about all of them can be taught to a person of average intelligence within a few days or so. The creators of TPS and Lean have done an amazing job of simplifying the discipline of IE for the common factory worker to understand and employ. Significant improvements in manufacturing efficiency can be gained with just a base level competency in IE. The more involved tools and methods are typically highly specialized for a given situation and result in marginal additional improvement. (This excludes the equipment / plant design aspects of IE, which can be highly technical as well).

2) Operational Discipline – This is the systematic and consistent execution of necessary actions. As stated above, this responsibility falls within the core job function of a front-line supervisor / manager. This does not require an Industrial Engineer, Lean expert, consultant, or other specialized technical background. This just requires good managers; being those who are highly disciplined and consistent as well. Managers are typically empowered with all the tools and resources needed to control their employees’ behaviors such as performance reviews (for career advancement), incentive programs including bonuses and pay increases, and others. Many companies launch Lean initiatives believing that Lean will automatically create operational discipline. This is not exactly true. Although Lean can help design and implement systems that help drive operational discipline, Lean itself cannot make the administrators of the Lean system more disciplined. Only effective leadership can ensure or increase discipline. Lean is not a substitute for leadership.

This brings me to the main point of my post. Your Lean initiative cannot succeed without sufficient operational discipline. Lean is a system; but all systems need competent and disciplined administrators. As a manufacturing leader, you don’t need Lean to develop competent and disciplined managers, supervisors, or shop-floor employees. You don’t need a Lean practitioner or Industrial Engineer to establish Standard Operating Procedures and ensure everyone is following those procedures without deviation. These are manufacturing fundamentals that help you get the most out of a Lean expert or IE should you choose to consult / employ them. It’s like saying that your basketball team of 6-year-old’s is struggling because they need more advanced plays. In actuality, they would dominate just by boxing out on rebounds, minimizing turnovers, moving their feet on defense, and making their layups (This was also true for my adult men’s league team so it’s something I’m quite passionate about). With that said, your Lean / IE / Consultant can help to accelerate your CI journey by applying industry best-practices and proven techniques for improving performance. However, if you find that your Lean initiatives aren’t sustaining, then maybe you’re not ready for Lean. You may want to take a step back and figure out how to increase operational discipline.


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