The concepts and tools of lean manufacturing have been finding their way into many other types of non-manufacturing organizations. Lean healthcare, lean design, lean government, lean enterprise, lean in the military, and even lean in charitable organizations. Although in many cases it is due to lean manufacturing consultants trying to find a new niche in which to make a buck, it can work… especially if the requirement for a culture change is taken into account.
There is some debate as to whether manufacturing excellence must include lean, and whether lean must be modeled after the Toyota Production System. Although I believe that there are only a handful of companies that come even close to Toyota’s lean manufacturing prowess, and that in most cases we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface and therefore there are huge opportunities by simply learning from Toyota, I also believe it is dangerous to delude ourselves into thinking that it’s the Toyota Way or the highway. If we simply try to emulate a company with a culture built on continuous improvement we will always be followers.
Let’s take a walk outside of the realm of the classic manufacturers.
Dell is an amazing supply chain machine, although some may claim its manufacturing is "simply" an aggregation activity of externally-manufactured subassemblies. If so it is an unmatched and extremely well-run and optimized aggregation of complex supply chains that produces very significant profits in one of the thinnest margin businesses around. Is it lean? Not in the traditional sense. But definitely an example of supply chain best practices, and supply chains are a fundamental part of a manufacturing business. Similarly Wal-Mart, which may have abandoned Sam’s requirement to "buy American" and some may claim is a scourge that just happens to provide employment for hundreds of thousands, is an incredibly efficient distribution machine. Is it lean? Again not in the traditional sense. However it is an example of distribution excellence, and distribution has significant application to classic manufacturing.
But let’s go a few steps further and get outside of what my wife calls "our bubble". Let’s forget about lean and Toyota and even Dell and Wal-Mart for a moment. Let’s forget about organizations with even the slightest semblance of manufacturing.
We are pushing lean and manufacturing excellence techniques outward to non-manufacturing organizations. But what about the reverse direction? Are there examples of excellence in areas radically remote from manufacturing? Something that a charity, restaurant, kindergarten, sports team, activist group, law office, or even the government does that we can learn from? Ok ok, government is a stretch, but you get my drift. When you make an ATM withdrawal from a bank in Thailand, how does the transaction cross and reconcile international financial networks with hundreds of potential banking regulations… virtually instantly? How does Greenpeace get a flimsy boat to show up anywhere on the globe on very short notice? How do journalists find the exact anonymous "knowledgeable source" they need to get a scoop? How does "Save the Children" keep track of the millions of growing kids they support worldwide, and get photos of those kids back to the specific donors? Ok, I have my suspicions for some of those, but I won’t get into that.
Who is the Toyota of retailing, banking, activism, media, and charity? How can we find it, and what can we learn?
Let’s not let our focus on lean manufacturing blind us to the other examples and sources of excellence all around us.