By Jon Miller | Post Date: May 10, 2006 8:36 PM | Comments: 14
Many of those exposing the dark side of Lean production take aim at “Lean production” as defined in the book The Machine that Changed the World. This book compares the Japanese and U.S. automotive industries and identifies best practices. It claims that it is inevitable that all manufacturing eventually become Lean manufacturing.
Some find this prospect, and the claim that Lean is good for people, hard to accept. An essay by Christian Berggren titled Lean Production: the End of History? is a well-reasoned rebuttal of some of the central claims made in The Machine that Changed the World.
As an example of how Lean production does not respect people, Mr. Berggren compares the pace of work at General Motors and at Japanese transplant factories:
With the help of kaizen all slack is eliminated. In the GM car factories, even those that have achieved high productivity and quality like Buick City, the work pace is relatively relaxed. People have time to talk to visitors and do some reading at their workstations. These things are unthinkable at Japanese transplants. According to their view, if workers are occasionally able to read a magazine at work, that does not only signify waste (muda), but also that workers will lack the motive force to continually make proposals for improvements.
The book has been sharply criticised by JAW on account of the authors' total neglect of the long working hours Japanese employees are forced to work year after year. The just-in-time production system has also been criticized for its detrimental social effects, and has been blamed for traffic congestion, labour problems and pollution.
Being a manufacturing consultant and having seen lines run at dangerously fast line speeds of less than 10 seconds all over the world, I was puzzled by Darius Mehri’s characterization of the line speed at Nizumi and Toyota in the 60 second range as being “very fast” in his book Notes from Toyota-land. But I think people working at fast line speeds may be the appropriate metaphor for the dangers of TPS.
The Toyota Production System is known for being fragile. If machines break, the line stops. If materials do not arrive just in time, the line stops. If there is a defect, the line stops. This is why kaizen is important and why people at Toyota work furiously on problem solving, root cause countermeasures, and shoring up their system against future breaks. Without this, a “fake” or “display” Lean manufacturing can not only hurt the performance of a company, it can hurt people. Lean production is fragile, as people are.
It is very easy to implement “display Lean” with all of the surface similarities but not the supporting human resource development and management problem solving disciplines built in. Even when it does have these things, a Lean workplace is fraught with tension. Ideally it should be a healthy tension that focuses the mind on solving problems and serving the customer. When people lack respect between one another, or when working conditions do not meet the basic needs of people this tension becomes unhealthy.
In a Lean workplace the work you do will be watched while the process is studied for the sake of kaizen. Anyone who has watched a worker slow down in the presence of a stopwatch knows that without respect for people, kaizen does not work. In the book Notes from Toyota-land the factory worker from Africa named Kofi is in a rage one day because a video camera was set up in the Japanese factory to tape him working, presumably to make him work faster. He felt that Lean production did not respect him, yet being videotaped was part of his job description as an employee at a Toyota group company.
In a Lean workplace you will be in an open, collaborative environment constantly being challenged (pressured) to do better. An anonymous reader on our blog last week posted a comment that expressed horror at my advocating a Lean office layout for engineers. The stress of constantly being monitored would be too much for this person. This person could not work in a Lean office.
This may be similar to a woman in our office who is terrified of giving presentations or speeches. She is otherwise completely functional and performs her job well. But she could not work as a public speaker, Lean or otherwise. A Lean workplace has certain requirements, just as public speaking does.
I will give a personal example of another reason that a Lean workplace does not respect people. At a small, money-losing furniture manufacturer in Seattle about 7 years ago we were asked to help implement Lean manufacturing and help turn them around financially. We set to work, and mid-way through the first week they lost one of their builders. He was young, skilled, and quiet but polite. Prior to our arrival and Lean manufacturing being introduced he had worked happily hidden behind his fortress of work in process inventory of entertainment centers.
Working now in the open (in absolutely safer, cleaner and more ergonomic working conditions) in close proximity to the upstream and downstream process, he had a breakdown. It turns out he was a refugee from a Middle Eastern country. As a child he had watched members of his family being killed during a war. He needed the protection of losing himself in his work, in isolation. Lean production did not respect this.
Shortly after this incident, this company fired Gemba. Was it us or was it the product? We never asked, but it was probably both. Lean manufacturing was not for some of their people, and as consultants we failed to see this.
Lean production does not respect people. Of course it doesn't. Production systems do not have feelings or the ability to respect human beings. Production systems are a set of rules and principles that describe effective ways to make money based on following certain laws of physics and economics.
But Lean is not capable of being mean either, unlike people are. When people criticize Lean production as “lean and mean” what they are really saying is that the people in charge of implementing Lean care less about the livelihoods of the workers as they do for themselves. This is one side of human nature. Lean production used by people who care less about people can be brutal while Lean production used by people who care about people can be a wonderful thing.
Tomorrow: Interview with Darius Mehri, Author of Notes from Toyota-landComments are moderated to filter spam and inappropriate content. There may be a delay before your comment is published.