Posted by: productivityinc | June 10, 2009

The Religion of Lean…

I’ve heard it said of Lean practitioners, that they are religious about Lean. In some ways you have to agree with the comparison. Lean is an endeavor it is hard to be on the fence about; it compels a certain passion and fervor.sun

But one way in which Lean differs greatly from religion is that there is no need for faith. It is hard to deny the power and promise of Lean once you have been part of a successful implementation.

For example, during a recent Lean Manager Program, the four-week Lean Certification program sponsored by Productivity Inc and Ohio State University, a participant from a speciality metal company reported an annualized cost savings of over $725,000 at the end of the program’s four-month project phase.   In addition to the cost savings, they also realized an improvement in lead time, cycle time, and machine up time as well as a reduction in changeover times and an improvement in teamwork. This is not unusual… Lean works… blind faith is not required.

Lean is empirical… a lived through experience you can’t deny. It has the power to be not just a panacea for what might be ailing your company, done well, it can provide you with a road map to competitive advantage or market dominance. More recently, organizations have recognized that Lean is not a series of tools, but a strategy for creating unencumbered market space, making it more relevant than ever. It is hard not to worship at THAT alter.

Lean is a journey filled with inspiration and enlightening moments… Perhaps I’m singing to the choir, but could I get an amen?


  1. I have to disagree about Lean not being a religion and not requiring faith. Years ago I would never have admitted to thinking Lean is a religious thing because of how I might be considered some kind of industrial weirdo from the east. Now, as time as made me a little (not too much!) wiser, I really see that it does require faith, at some points in our Lean journey.
    During the mid 80s, Doc Hall wrote an article in the APICS quarterly journal about things that some companies were doing that gave them superior results. Things like cycle-time reduction, significant improvements in human productivity, workplace organization, flow lines and work cells and more. If you remember, during the 80s the big mantra was MRP II. Ollie Wight was the MRP II God and his Class A MRP II rating was the Holy Grail standard. But Doc Hall never once mentioned anything at all about MRP II. So what was going on? I became interested and started some research. At the time, there were three books out on JIT or World Class manufacturing: Dr. Schonberger’s book (World Class Manufacturing), Doc Hall’s book (Attaining Manufacturing Excellence) and a re-issue of H Ford’s book (Today and Tomorrow). That’s all we had to read at the time!
    (BTW: I recommend reading both of Ford’s books as they have the foundation principles and theories that Toyota followed in their journey. Ford’s other book is “My Life and Work”.)
    I met two great visionaries whom I was able to hire and help educate me: Ken McGuire and Dr. Per Johanssen, both of the MEAC in Massachusetts. Dr. Johanssen was later associated with Productivity Inc. When they came in to work with us, I knew there was a body of knowledge (elements of religion?) that I was going to learn. And did we!
    I’ll fast forward about 8-10 months. After working with McGuire and Johanssen we had achieved:
    • Reduction of manufacturing cycle time from 16 weeks to three days (remember that MRP II told us to allow one week for each subassembly build plus one week to kit or 2 weeks per level. With an 8 level BOM that gave us 16 weeks of cycle time).
    • Elimination of all kits, stockroom activities, weekly Dispatch Schedules and the implementation of work cells and Kanbans.
    • Elimination of the non-value activity of labor reporting to jobs.
    • Elimination of hundreds of quality and process problems by the production floor associates working in teams and using collaboration and team problem solving tools.
    • Implementation of hourly rates of productions (Takt time) for smooth, one piece synchronized flow.
    • An estimated 50%+ productivity increase needing less people that could be better used elsewhere.
    • About a 60% reduction in inventory to support this product family.
    • Elimination of end of line inspection and implementation of inspection at the source.
    • And so much more !
    After all of this dramatic transformation, I sat there and had my first religious experience. I remember I had chills down my spine looking at the new floor payout and realizing that so much of everything we had learned in the college industrial management classes was all wrong; that fundamental things about MRP II were wrong (the old God); that human relationships in the workplace were all wrong and that “white collar-blue collar” was wrong because the real industrial engineers were the hourly people on the floor!
    I had found a new religion in the fundamentals of manufacturing.
    Now, let me talk about the faith part. Yes it “is hard to deny the power and promise of Lean once you have been part of a successful implementation” as you state in the blog. But a transformation can be very challenging.
    After leaving Corning I took a position with a power supply manufacturer in New Jersey and using my experience of a “successful implementation” I began to implement another Lean transformation thinking this would be a piece of cake. It wasn’t.
    I brought in the MEAC consultants again to help. And after months of training and education of the entire workforce we began to implement change. That’s when the false Gods began to appear. Things were getting worse because we had to meet customer demands and change the workplace at the same time. The first time we started to create work cells in U-shape configurations the floor began to look disorganized. People were saying that the floor looked worse than it ever did while we were creating these changes. A supervisor with 39 years with the company had to be removed (was done very respectfully) but upset a lot of the old timers.
    I would come into work in the morning and look at my engineering manager (also a Lean crusader) and say “What time did you wake up last night” and we’d compare the times we both couldn’t sleep.
    We both knew the things we were doing were right and sometimes it may have been easy to compromise a Lean principle, but we stayed with the “book definition” (read “Bible”) of each principle with no compromise. Sometimes a person or a team would want to try to do something that maybe we thought was not the best idea, but we believed in Employee Empowerment and the learning ability of our people. They would soon find a better way if we just got out of their way!
    We had to have a “leap of faith” that Lean was right and we did! We said “this is what Lean says to do“ and we did it. We would re-read parts of Doc Hall’s book and try to make sure we followed it. When the consultants told us something that maybe didn’t sit right in our heads, we held the faith and did it.
    So, to some of us Lean is somewhat of a religion because the old schools are wrong and Lean is not always intuitive. Sometimes you need to believe in the fundamentals, think counter-intuitive and have the “leap of faith” to bring you to Lean success.
    As a full convert after all of these years, I no longer doubt the faith!
    (I apologize if I got too wordy and for any typos.)

  2. Sal Runfola: Sir, thank you for recognizing that the floor workers are the genuine engineers when it comes to improving a process directly. Too often we are condescended to and brushed aside as being too uneducated, too stupid and too worthless to be able to make any meaningful contribution to a process improvement.

    We often are faced with the ‘high priests’ of Lean who, having just gotten their Black Belt, Green Belt or Golden Jockstrap, barrel into an area turning things upsidedown simply because they have the authority to do so.

    At first glance – they don’t appear to listen to anyone who’s been doing the job longer than they’ve stopped filling diapers… BUT!, a few years down the road, after they’ve “successfully implemented” their ideas… they quietly change things back to the way they work, collect a bonus, get a promotion and dump another shithead in our laps who goes through the same dog-and-pony act all over again.

    If I had a dime for every Lean/Six Sigma/Kaizen/insert-your-favorite-acronym-here consultant that rolled through town I’d have Warren Buffet outside waxing my car right now. And I’m seriously considering jamming a pencil into the eye of the next person who uses “synergy” in a sentence at work. *sigh* Some days I’d rather shovel real manure than swim through the loads that are being put in charge of processes they don’t comprehend.

    Thanks again for one of the very few posts I’ve found on the web that grants a bit of credit to the folks who actually come up with the ideas that directly apply to improving a process.

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