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Assembly Mag Thinks Whirlpool is Lean. Really.

By Kevin Meyer

I really have no words.  Well, you know that's impossible.  But Austin Weber's article on Assembly Magazine's website that glorified the supposed lean accomplishments at Whirlpool nearly made me sick.  I won't quote any of the article except suffice it to say it included lots of talk about tools.  Not people.

The oft-forgotten second pillar of lean, respect for people.  Forgotten by Whirlpool.  Forgotten by Assembly Magazine.

We've followed the disaster at Whirlpool for several years.  Back in August of 2006 we told you about their plans to lay off hundreds at their Evansville plant, while saying that "the company will continue to have committees explore lean manufacturing or efficiency practices." Sorry, that's not real lean.

As that post predicted, those committees didn't exactly do much good as in December of that same year we told you how they were adding a couple thousand people at their Clyde, Mason, and Amana facilities while losing a thousand at Fort Smith thanks to chasing lower labor costs to Ramos Arizpe in Mexico.  Trading tens of thousands of years of experience for newbies and the associated huge training costs and quality curve... oh and a buck or two per hour in labor "cost."  Sorry, that's not real lean.

A year or two later we updated the story, comparing Whirlpool to a company that does understand the value of brains - Rockwood.  September of 2009 then brought the news that Whirlpool's Evansville factory was finally being closed for good - an expected but unnecessary death.  In March of 2010 we were a little amused to learn that Whirlpool was now looking for trained lean folks... at a facility just a few miles from a facility they had closed... which had been filled with trained lean folks.  Seriously.  I can't make this stuff up.  Sorry, that's not real lean.

Bryan Zeigler at the Lean is Good blog quoted Evolving Excellence in its own analysis of Whirlpool last year, but then added a comment that hits the nail on the head.

Yes, Mr. Colburn [Whirlpool VP] is giving the Evansville plant accolades but at the same time each employee has to deal with the slow agonizing pain of slowly seeing their factory move piece by piece.

Yep, as if that knucklehead version of lean stands even a tiny chance of being successful.

Real lean companies understand that success results from harnessing the creative ideas of experienced people that are treated with respect.  They understand that the value of the brains far outweighs the cost of the pair of hands - and that the value of brains is real but not captured on traditional financial statements.  Real lean companies understand that far more cost can be removed - and value created - through improvement ideas rather than chasing low cost labor.  Especially when that silly chase results in shedding thousands of years of experience and paying large amounts to retrain and absorb initial quality issues.

Sorry Austin, Whirlpool is about as far from an example of real lean as you can get.  Do your homework next time please.  This is why lean gets a bum rap.

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4 Responses to "Assembly Mag Thinks Whirlpool is Lean. Really."

  • Matt Wrye
    12 November 2011 - 9:52 am

    This story hits home for me. I was raised in Evansville and knew a lot of people that worked for Whirlpool. In 2006, I was looking for a new job and I had a neighbor try to recruit me to work for Whirlpool. I said absolutely no way. Even then they had a horrible reputation for how they treated people and the writing was on the wall for the future closing of that once great facility. What struck me most was my neighbors comment about my line of work. When he found out I was a lean person he said, “Oh you have it easy then. All you have to do is sit in meetings all day and think about how it could be better. Not change anything.”. Wow! That speaks volumes for the way Whirlpool views lean.

  • Rick Bohan
    12 November 2011 - 6:16 pm

    I bust your chops pretty hard over your political leanings but posts like this are why I keep coming back here. Good and valuable research. I understand that government regulations can be burdensome but nothing does damage like stupid managers. And Whirlpool seems to have cornered the market on them.

    Just for laughs, google Whirlpool product reviews. Seems that, if you buy a Whirlpool product, your chances are at least even that you won’t like it.

  • Austin Weber
    16 November 2011 - 2:41 pm

    Thanks for the feedback on my short piece about the early days of lean manufacturing at Whirlpool. You raise some good topics for discussion. However, as a long-time proponent and advocate of lean manufacturing practices, I find some of your comments a bit harsh.

    I think it’s important to point out that the article you question was merely an historical perspective. Despite my inquiries, Whirlpool provided no input on this piece. Therefore, my material was based on articles that we published more than 15 years ago. Also, my piece was written before Whirlpool’s recent layoff and plant closing announcement.

    I always maintain a neutral stance and report just the facts. As a result, I never condone or condemn operational practices at any specific manufacturer. My intent with this piece was to take readers on a short trip back to the past. I believe that hindsight can be a powerful lean tool from which we can all learn.

  • Thomas Sortino
    23 November 2011 - 12:47 pm

    Comment posted to Assembly Mag:
    Having stumbled across this and followed the links to the other writings, I think, Mr. Sprovieri, you may have missed the point of Mr. Meyer’s comments. The distinction is between lean and LAME (as defined here: http://www.leanblog.org/2007/03/lean-or-lame/ )

    Your suggesting that you feel Mr. Meyer ‘seems to be confusing the issues of lean manufacturing and outsourcing’ further shows that your inclination is to see tool use as evidence of being a lean organization. Although common, this is not true to how those organizations that are truly following the underlying philosophy of what is often referred to as ‘lean’ understand it.

    Mr. Weber, in his comments to Mr. Meyer’s article, points out that he was unable to get any help of comment for his articles directly from Whirlpool. For those that ‘get it’, that is evidence enough that Whirlpool does not.

    Looking for tools, and monitoring Mass-production metrics will only allow you to see what you are looking for. Again, for those that really know, true lean does not support traditional GAAP-metrics, so if you see the latter, you will not likely see the former; only the trappings, thus LAME.

    Might I suggest that you and Mr. Weber contact Mr. Norman Bodek and ask him about his current thoughts on the proper implementation of what Toyota (and others) have learned over the years? I think you may find that his thoughts (if not literary style) align fairly well with Mr. Meyer’s.