Way back in the day (a day in 1974 to be precise), Ollie Wight wrote a book called "Production and Inventory Management In The Computer Age" in which he laid out the underlying principles of MRP. It was a philosophy book more akin to "The Toyota Way" or "Lean Thinking" than a nuts and bolts, ‘how to’ book. In it, he made the point that perhaps the biggest obstacle to the acceptance of MRP in manufacturing was the tendency for managers to take a ‘we’re different’ attitude, which they felt was adequate explanation for why common tools like MRP would never work in their company. His counter to that, which was quite accurate, was that all manufacturing operates by the same basic principles and tools like MRP that are built around those principles have universal application.
32 Years later, it is somewhat ironic to read ERP providers playing on that same misguided ‘we’re different’ rationalization in order to sell Ollie’s product. In an article titled Traditional Lean Manufacturing May Not Be Rx For Pharmaceutical Companies, the authors (who just happen to have a software product for sale that they say is "the Rx for pharmaceutical companies’) state that the low success rate of lean in pharmaceutical companies, "is due to the fundamental complexities of the pharmaceutical manufacturing process, which produce challenges not found in simple high-volume manufacturing plants that can dedicate production equipment to specific product lines, such as automobiles and computers." Just how many pharmaceutical products do you suppose the authors had to ingest in order to come to conclude that making aspirin tablets requires "fundamental complexities", while making automobiles is, by comparison, "simple high volume manufacturing"?
This is not another diatribe about MRP, however. My concern is with learning. That ‘we’re different’ mentality that Wight noted long ago and Invistics plays on today is very much alive and well, and a very real obstacle to lean manufacturing. Whether it is due to intellectual laziness or a bias against change, it seems to be awfully easy to investigate lean to the point that you read about some lean tool or technique that does not fit well into your environment – then stop learning and issue a proclamation that lean doesn’t fit in your environment. The next proclamation is usually that some old, traditional approach is still the best way to go in your particular plant. How convenient – no strain, no change, no reason to stray from your comfort zone.
What comes to mind most readily are the job shop folks who have decided that, since Toyota is a repetitive manufacturer, the Toyota Production System has little to offer them. Their usual sober, well thought out explanation has to do with pull systems and kanban. Because pull is not always appropriate in job shops, the entire TPS body of knowledge gets kicked out, and – surprise! surprise! – the best way to run a job shop is proclaimed to be with an MRP system and all of the same old practices. How about that? They have learned just enough about lean to convince themselves that they don’t need to learn anything at all, and nobody’s thinking needs to change.
I always thought that, since the perfect world of the Toyota Production System is one piece flow and the dream of Toyota is to refine their system to the point that they can customize each car to the point that no two need be the same and all are delivered in very short lead times; and that since job shops often make everything one at a time with each product customized to some degree for each customer; the Toyota Production System folks and the job shop folks ought to be fellow travelers down the path to achieving their goals. In fact, the Toyota Production System obliterates many of the old repetitive manufacturing principles and pushes every manufacturer into being a sort of a job shop.
There is nothing to be gained from arguing the point, however. The opposition to lean is not based on intellectual differences. rather, it is the result of a preconceived bias. The anti-lean people were against it before they opened the first book, and the goal of their lean education has not been honest education, it has been to find ammunition to support their case for the status quo.
It is not just the job shop crowd that is guilty of such mental and emotional shabbiness. The same anti-lean bias is often heard from within the process industries – like the pharmaceuticals – who determine that since heijunka and SMED have limited application in their plants, there is nothing in lean for them. People from union plants decide that the contracts prohibit effective employee engagement, so they are also exempt from lean. Other companies have customers that only order in massive quantities, so lean does not apply to them either. Everyone who seeks one ca find some excuse and they don’t have to look too deeply into lean to find it.
Lean manufacturing is the grand champion onion at the county fair. You have to peel back a whole lot of layers to get to the core. The outer layer is JIT from suppliers. The center is an executive team with a complete grasp of a fundamentally different set of economic and operating principles. Everyone who has failed to truly become lean has done so because they stopped peeling back the layers of the onion before they reached the center.
The basic question is whether you stopped because you reached a layer that you did not understand – that you need help grasping, or it requires a broader group of folks within the organization to fully embrace; or did you stop because digging into the next layer was too difficult, too threatening, or it would rock the boat a little too hard?
The worst part of being a consultant is that far too often I am confronted with people whose lean journey has stopped for the latter reasons – it stopped because they found a place that gave them the ammunition they sought all along to fight change. The best part of my job is interacting with the blog readers. Almost all of you are here for the former reasons. You are anxious to rip through the layer of the onion that has your company stumped.
The naysayers are a lost cause and it is just a question of time before the manufacturing world steamrolls them into acceptance – or a different line of work. Arguing with them is a waste of precious time. The intellectually eager people, on the other hand, are a source of adrenaline and support. The key to your personal lean journey is spotting the difference and surrounding yourself with true lean learners – folks you can help and be helped by along the way. I know it is the blog reading lean thinkers who continually spur my lean learning process, and I deeply appreciate all of you. I hope you find the same in your journey.