Lean manufacturing is an economic business model – not a religion, not a moral crusade, and not a social cause. Treating people decently, with respect and fairness is, of course, a prerequisite for lean manufacturing success. However, treating people with respect and fairness is a prerequisite for succeeding in any business model. In fact it is necessary for success in any endeavor, business or otherwise. Financial gain from stomping on people is not business – it is a moral abomination that can never be termed a "success".
Jon Miller at Gemba Panta Rei has openly discussed some criticism of lean for its inhumane treatment of people. Who knows if any of the stories people are telling are true, but if any of them are, the miserable treatment of people in a Toyota plant is not the result of the Toyota Production System. It is the result of hiring miserable excuses for human beings and putting them in management positions.
It happens a lot. I wrote about the pathetic management of Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe Company who are deservedly going to jail for running a factory that was so unsafe it killed someone. Also from New Jersey comes a story of a company that not only fired workers for participating in the May 1 immigrant protest, it is alleged to have denied them their final paychecks and routinely denying them overtime pay, along with a host of other abusive practices. In either case, pursuing lean manufacturing techniques would not have changed the fact that some of the people with authority are jerks. This kind of management isn’t ready for the sort of consulting Norm Bodek provides; first they need the free consulting offered in churches, temples, synagogues and mosques.
If there is a correlation between how management approaches people and lean manufacturing it is that any manager whose morals and ethics are so primitive that abusing people to put money in his own pocket, or to fill some psychologically based vacuum where a big chunk of brain matter is supposed to be, is not nearly bright enough to really understand lean manufacturing.
Much of manufacturing can never be done in an environment even close to that of the office of a social activist or an anti-business columnist. By definition, changing the shape of a chunk of metal or a handful of resin requires energy, and energy translates to heat. The material always gives up its shape grudgingly, and noise and fumes are an unavoidable fact of manufacturing. Of course manufacturers do their best to minimize the affect of these things on people, but it cannot be eliminated – just masked. To the extent that most critics of manufacturing paint the normal state of a factory as abusive, they are simply demonstrating their ignorance and bias. Darius Mehri falls Into this category. With no experience in manufacturing, he went to work for Toyota in Japan then wrote a book trashing the inhumanity of the Toyota Production System. My reaction is that Mr. Mehri was simply expressing shock at the first exposure to serious manufacturing and how it is done within the culture of Japan – hardly representative of the global deployment of the Toyota Production System.
But that is not the sort of abuse I am talking about. Nor am I talking about factories skirting some of the insane regulations imposed on manufacturing by OSHA and the EPA. Eric Husman at Grim Reader has a great example of a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for antibacterial hand soap that would lead the reader to believe that the aftermath of Chernobyl would be a day at the beach compared to the consequences of having this stuff seep into the public domain. Production folks and management alike are befuddled by this sort of nonsense.
I am talking about the sort of selfish, maniacal management that leads people to physically, mentally and financially abuse other people. I am talking about the sort of people who manage sweat shops in the U.S. and around the globe, yet have no trouble looking at themselves in the mirror. I am talking about the sort of scum that uses child labor, takes advantage of the vulnerability of illegal immigrants – or even legal ones without adequate language skills and knowledge of their basic rights. I am talking about people who are way across the line in ignoring fundamental workplace safety rules and blatantly flaunting environmental regulations. These people are not a product of lean manufacturing, JIT or the Toyota Production System. They are not a product of the old Sloan system either. For all of the flaws and all of my criticism, Sloan and his minions did not deliberately and maliciously put people’s lives in danger for their own personal gain. These people are the product of genetics or an upbringing that left them devoid of basic morality.
Unfortunately, manufacturing is under siege on many fronts. From the environmental extremists to the Washington think tank crowd, there are many people who would like to see manufacturing driven from the U.S. The same situation exists in many of the countries in which Superfactory readers are striving to make a difference. The dregs of the manufacturing world continually offer up ammunition to manufacturing critics and foes, making it tougher for all of us.
The bottom line: Is JIT, Lean Manufacturing, the Toyota Production System inhuman? Far from it – just a fairly small group of soulless managers – too dense to even spell lean if you spotted then the ‘L’, the ‘E’ and the ‘A’ – who I would not allow into my home under any circumstances.