Where would one look for the things that we need to do to eliminate waste? Well, because Womack’s system was presumably extracted from Toyota, one has to look at the source.
In droves, we flocked to see what Toyota was doing. And we saw a lot, didn’t we? We saw cellular manufacturing, we saw the artifacts of pull systems – kanbans, we saw a pull cord that triggered a light and a sound to get the attention of supervisors.
So, we wrote books on lean tools, the things we could see when we looked at Toyota. We read the books and we ran off to put those things into place. We installed andon lights and pull cords. We established kanban systems and, through the wonders of modern technology, we added technology to them, producing “electronic kanbans”. We changed our assembly lines and made them into U-shape cells.
And what was the result? Well, in some cases, the improvements were real, dramatic and sustained. Some companies – the ones with a Toyota-like culture – received those tools like seeds and nurtured them to produce much fruit.
But, as with most of the newest and best management theories, many companies applied the tools, enjoyed a quick burst of improvement but quickly slipped back to the old way. This was the day of andons that went unresponded to. The day when kanban levels were set and never improved.
Time went on and when “it” didn’t work, “it” was retooled. This time we included something called Kaizen Events, eerily reminiscent of the Process Improvement Teams and quasi-QC-Circles of the 80’s when management theorists were imitating what they called “Japanese Management”. This time, though, they combined the “blitzed” improvement with the lean tools and the results were, well, better. But soon, the process slipped back into its old ways.
The idea here was fairly simple: go and observe what Toyota was doing. Figure out how to describe it and “implement” it. Get some improvement. Discover diminishing returns. Go back to Toyota and see what they were doing. And continue the cycle.
The problem endemic to this crazy little cycle is this: you can only imitate what you can see, and you can’t see the whole system. You can only see the externals. You can observe the artifacts of an andon system, but can you observe the heart of the team leader responding to the andon rapidly because he considers a problem a blessing?
And so the cycle went for the last fifteen years. Thought leaders spewed out the newest thing even though there is nothing new under the sun. Consultants built a business case around selling the latest and greatest thing. The thing’s usefulness slowed or stopped completely due to human neglect. Consultants’ business slowed and we’re on to the next best thing. The cycle continues. We can see the progression:
There was Total Quality Management, then Lean, then Six Sigma, then Lean Sigma. Think about the books circulating on the subject. I recently did a search on Amazon and found 772 titles with some form of “lean manufacturing” in the title.
So, let’s just pause for a minute and take stock: where are you? Are you following a particular method? Is it lean al a Womack and the value stream crowd? Is it six sigma, popularized by GE? Is it some hybrid mix like lean sigma, the version the US Navy “bought”, popularized by the aircraft industry?