Kathleen Fasanella, of Fashion Incubator fame, sent me her book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide To Sewn Products Manufacturing. While I have not plowed too far into it, that which I have read so far is great. The introduction, in particular, has a couple of paragraphs that caused me to stop in my tracks. It seems as though she somehow wriggled her way into my blogging head. Let me share those paragraphs with you:
"… you’ll notice right away that this material is opinionated, biased and prejudicial. Well, that’s because I’m passionately committed to my vocation and I’m fanatically devoted to small design companies. Because I want you to succeed, I have used any cheap shot rhetorical devices that will get your attention. In these pages I tease, beg, plead, nag, threaten, frighten, intimidate, cajole, make you laugh and cry, use guilt trips or any other thing I can think of for the sole purpose of persuading you to start smart!
Obviously, I really do care, otherwise, why would I have written in this format since it’s certain to offend some people? The truth is sometimes painful and you must know the facts. If you find you need to improve your system, then do it …. So get over it because you have work to do."
Kathleen perfectly captured my feelings about lean manufacturing, and my approach to writing this blog.
Many readers are young and filled with the early passion for lean manufacturing that first fired me more than twenty years ago. I am still fired with it – more than ever. But those twenty years have created a sense of urgency in me. Jim Womack is the lean leader. He is the one who is interviewed by the Washington Post and Busines Week and whose books become instant best sellers. His first book essentially created the term "lean". I have an enormous level of admiration for him, and great respect for all he has done for lean. At the same time, we must all face up to the fact that we have all – Jim Womack included – failed to save automotive.
Jim wrote "The Machine That Changed The World" fifteen years ago. Automotive has been pursuing lean since the book first appeared. In the last several months, the Big 3 automotive companies have announced job cuts of over 70,000 people. If they all have a spouse and two point something kids, that is better than a quarter of a million Americans out of work, out of luck, up the creek. When you consider the supplier companies going down with them, the number more than doubles. Clearly something is missing from our lean message.
I don’t think lean is a good idea – I know it is. In fact, I know, without a moment’s hesitation, that lean is the key to America’s manufacturing future. The title of my book, "Rebirth of American Industry" and the symbol on the cover – the Phoenix – are not simply marketing devices. They reflect my deep conviction that American manufacturing will become the leanest in the world, it will be reborn, like that Phoenix, rising from the ashes of the last quarter century of ruin. But we are rapidly running out of time. We cannot continue to chat about lean theory and continue to send the same message we have sent for two decades, while a half a million Americans suffer the consequences of the failure of our biggest manufacturers to become lean.
My view of Jim Womack is similar to my view of George Bush following 9/11 or Katrina. Like Bush was with those catastrophe’s, Womack is facing a tough situation with the corporate free fall in Detroit. The problems are not of either Bush or Womack’s making. But both wanted the leadership job – they sought the role – and now must bear the responsibility to lead. I sympathize with Womack, just as I did Bush. I will help in any way I can because, whether it is 9/11, Katrina or the collapse of the American auto industry, I am affected just like every other American. But I cannot lead the effort. Only Jim Womack has the stature to do that. He earned it, he accepted it, and now he must bear the responsibility that comes with it.
Michael Jordan once told Charles Barkley that Barkley no longer could decide whether he would be a role model or not; he could only decide what kind of role model he would be. Jim Womack is in the same boat.
If there is any unique value in my writing, either the Superfactory blog or my book, it stems from the fact that I have only been a lean writer and consultant for a year or so. I have never been a senior manager. I spent the last twenty years in manufacturing management, most of it in plants rather than headquarters. My point of view is that of the men and women in the trenches every day working to keep the product flowing. All of the lean community should be concerned when I tell you that, at that level, most of the lean literature, including Jim Womack’s latest letter, is viewed with scorn – at least by the people who have been managing and supervising manufacturing operations for ten years or more.
The people in the plants have been ‘lean theoried’ to death, and they live in the world where lean theory and manufacturing reality are grossly disconnected. They do not want to hear about respect for people and social contracts while they are being driven to reduce headcount. They are tired of hearing about Toyota’s kanbans and cycle time reduction focus when their performance measures are driven by accounting systems that slaughter them if they reduce inventory and under-absorb overhead. Their eyes roll when they hear about processes when their career depends on satisfying their departmental boss. They do not need another book or lecture on quality when they know that they can only get resources from engineering if they can show labor savings. Having corporate management and lean ‘experts’ – the very people who should be fixing the disconnects – smugly write off lean failure to ‘middle management resistance’ is far more demoralizing than most consultants and senior managers can ever know. When handed Jim Womack’s latest piece, I am certain that most experienced factory people threw it in the nearest trash can unread.
Far too often, those of us in the lean community function as a mutual admiration society and ignore the harsh realities of manufacturing. We don’t have time for that any more. Factories are closing and people are being laid off. Our kids will have fewer and fewer manufacturing opportunities, and they will live in a weaker economy. Jim Womack’s letter was great. It was all correct; it was all true; and, as usual, he described the core concepts of lean eloquently. But it’s all been said before.
It would have been kinder of me, I suppose, to have written about the truth of the lean theory embodied in Womack’s letter and praised him for another masterful job. But I am too much like Kathleen Fasanella. My commitment is to the factories and the people in them – not to the lean experts, as much as I admire and respect many of them. I am a whole lot more worried about the 70,000 Big Three workers who will go home soon and sit their families down to tell them the devastating news than I am about Jim Womack’s feelings.
It is because I have so much respect for Jim Womack, and because I see the clout he swings in manufacturing headquarters and in Washington that I want to shake him. I want to tell him, "Lead us, Jim! Take charge! Be as blunt and brutal with us as you need to be to nail down the root problems with our lean message, then help us carry it to our customers. But please do not allow us to settle for the status quo when so many people are suffering the consequences of our failure to lead American automotive manufacturing to lean competitiveness."
It is unfair of me, of course, to put that load on Jim Womack, after all he has done for lean, in general, and American manufacturing, in particular. But as I told Chet Marchwinski of LEI in an email yesterday, "Jim’s the man." He is the only one among us to drive the whole lean herd in the direction needed to enable us to help save the auto industry.