Very early in my manufacturing career, I was the beneficiary of some very good managerial advice that I’d like to pass along. A very wise, veteran manager told me that any time someone comes to you and says the solution to the problem – any business problem – is to ‘reorganize’ or ‘tighten disipline’ you can be almost certain they have not really discovered the real root of the problem.
The people you’ve got in place are certainly a collection of strengths and weaknesses but, on balance, they are probably pretty good – at least as good as whatever new scheme you want to put in place. If they are not getting things done correctly, or to expectations, it is usually because there is some underlying obstacle or conflict in their way.
Same holds true with discipline. The folks in the plant are all responsible adults who want the best for the company. If they are breaking the rules or failing to adhere to some policy, it is inevitably because the rules or policies present a conflict with some other worthwhile goal they are trying to reach.
In short, the advice was to view such recommendations as shortcuts or lazy solutions. Digging up the real problem and solving it takes hard work, in most cases, and requires solid knowledge of the complex, inter-related the processes involved.
The provider of this sage advice so many years ago was my dad. He rose to senior ranks in manufacturing with GE, turned around a couple of machine tool companies, and is now a semi-retired consultant for the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences. I could not have asked for a better mentor to my manufacturing career.
If and when the time comes for me to pass along such wisdom to my sons – assuming one of them is just crazy enough to want to get into manufacturing – I believe I will add the following:
Whenever someone tells you that you that the key to lean manufacturing is "lean culture", "lean attitude", "lean leadership" or the right "DNA", but does not have a clear list of solid action items for you to take, you can bet the ranch they do not really understand lean manufacturing.
It seems to me that the underlying premise of such lean advice is rather insulting. It conjures up a ‘Dorothy in the Land of Oz’ sort of an image. . . just close your eyes, click your heels three times, and say to yourself "there’s no company like Toyota, there’s no company like Toyota" and -poof – it will happen.
Lean management and lean manufacturing are complicated, tough decisions and actions, requiring a lot of hard work and changes in very concrete things. Reports have to be changed, decision making criteria have to be overhauled, supplier and freight contracts must be renegotiated, factory layouts have to change, policies and procedures must be replaced or scrapped. There is work to do, and lots of it.
In my experience in middle management, speeches from senior managers and vision statements plastered on the walls were of little or no value in terms of helping me get my corner of the place leaner. As a senior manager, I could see it in the eyes of the employees that any speech I made about lean was little more than a short term intellectual exercise, of no real value to the people who had to make things happen. When the speech was over, everyone was going to go back to work and do everything pretty much the same as always.
Just about every football team starts out in the summer with a winning attitude and a coach exhorting them to win. Most of them will lose as many or more than they win by the time the season is over. Winning results from work – running, lifting, blocking and tackling. If just wanting to win was all it took, there would not be enough trophies to go around.
Factories are no different. If having a lean attitude is all it takes, we would all be Toyotas by now.