Commit to a Lean operation or commit to mediocrity

I have watched with considerable amusement the efforts by political and media types to avoid the use of the “R” word. It's a recession, folks. I'll even put it in big letters: RECESSION. It's here. Deal with it.


I have watched with considerable amusement the efforts by political and media types to avoid the use of the “R” word. It's a recession, folks. I'll even put it in big letters: RECESSION. It's here. Deal with it.

And by deal with it, I mean simply this: what are you going to do about it?

A recession is hardly unusual, and it's not terribly unexpected when you try to borrow or spend your way out of a financial crisis. You don't move forward by adding debt and pushing the problem out until later. You get out of this problem by cutting your costs, streamlining your operational process and reinvesting the savings in your business.

For the purposes of this discussion, “costs” are not people. People are assets. Machines are assets. Costs are a measure of how efficiently your people and assets operate.

The best process known for identifying those costs and their root cause is Lean manufacturing. It has this mythic quality, like Luke Skywalker's Force. It has been around as long as the assembly line, but it has gained notoriety in the last 50 years as the linchpin behind Toyota's rise as a global manufacturing power.

There's nothing secret about Lean. There are hundreds of books on the topic. (Literally, hundreds.) And they can all be summed up in a few simple words: find the waste, eliminate the waste, find more waste and eliminate that, too.

It sounds simple. In fact, it is very hard. It takes time and money and commitment %%MDASSML%% mostly commitment. Lean doesn't depend on a marketing solution, a CEO's speech or a few well-placed posters on a bulletin board. Lean is alive with the energy generated by workers and the unyielding support of management. It requires hard choices and smart people. Above all, it requires time and change.

Most of us are impatient. We expect results now %%MDASSML%% or at least by the next quarter's report to analysts. We hate to change. We'll tolerate mediocrity because it is easier to accept than the commitment to make things better. Lean blows apart both the idea that time and change are barriers. It says that change can come in small, incremental steps along a long path to continuous improvement. The key is that there can be no deviation from that path.

It is clear that American manufacturing is off the path, stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels. The United States is the clear global manufacturing leader, but we decline the many opportunities to get better. The other cars on the path (and there is no greater metaphor for manufacturing problems than cars) are gaining rapidly.

This month's cover story on Lean is one more signpost on that path to change and productivity. Like ignoring the recession, ignoring the signs ensures we will get lost again. I don't think that's an option any longer.

Lean manufacturing works. The only question left is, are you willing to work Lean manufacturing?

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