How many times have we heard the phrase "lean manufacturing won’t work here, we’re different!"? More times than I can count, from people in "special" situations like molding, job shops, medical device manufacturing, education, government and even the entertainment industry. Anyone smart enough to be reading this blog knows that it is hogwash and simply a reflection of an ignorance of what lean is really about.
Dean Meyer (believe me, absolutely no relation!) has an article in the latest CIO magazine titled Lean and Six Sigma: Process Improvement Methods That Had Best Know Their Place. CIO is geared toward information technology professionals, and the blurb on the front page is even more provocative: "Dean Meyer advocates for keeping these buzz-heavy methods in their proper place." What "proper place" is that? Well, let’s start with a couple of the concluding paragraphs from his article:
The success stories are centered in manufacturing environments, and for good reason. Both techniques presume that workflows are routine, predictable, stable and can be flow charted. Apply Lean and Six Sigma to a job that involves diverse tasks, relationships and creative problem solving (like what most IT staff do) and you may find you’ve created a very efficient organization that fails to accomplish its purpose.
Furthermore, neither of these methods is appropriate for designing your organization chart. Putting together all the people who work on a given process creates “stovepipe” organizations that replicate skills, reduce specialization, undermine synergies, limit flexibility and ultimately damage overall performance. In healthy organizations, multiple processes cut across the structure, combining just the right skills from throughout an organization into well-planned teams and well-defined work-flows.
Lean and Six Sigma can make certain operational functions within an IT organization more efficient. But these two methods are certainly not appropriate centerpieces of an organizational transformation program.
I guess a knuckle-dragging manufacturing grunt like myself with no need for creativity should just accept those statements. But that would be doing a disservice to all the creative types that have taken their organizations to the next level using lean and six sigma methods. So I’m presuming this Dean Meyer (again, remember, no relation!) must have some real background to come to such startling conclusions. Hmmm… well his bio doesn’t seem to indicate that he has any experience actually working for a company, let alone one that has done anything with lean and six sigma. So let’s default to how CIO describes him:
Dean Meyer coaches CIOs on organizational, political and leadership issues. He listens, and offers perspective with his compelling business-within-a-business paradigm and the common sense built over 35 years in the IT industry.
Ahh… ok, I get it. He "listens and offers perspective." So does my mother in-law, or at least the offer perspective side of things. But with that in mind, let’s get back to his article. Let’s start with how he defines lean.
The Lean method (short for Lean Manufacturing) is a modern version of an old tradition—business process reengineering (BPR). It’s a method to redesign, and hopefully optimize, a workflow and reduce waste.
Uh, not exactly. It’s a method to maximize value to the customer, and doing that may involve many things like process redesign and workflow optimization.
All reengineering processes have their origins in a method pioneered in coal mines in the late 1940s by the Tavistock Institute in Great Britain. The method, called “socio-technical systems analysis” (STS), engaged those doing the work in rethinking how the work is accomplished.
I guess I’ll have to add that to the very detailed "history of lean" timeline on Superfactory. The last time I checked, most of lean evolved out of methods created by Ford in the 1920’s and then optimized by the likes of Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo at Toyota before being brought back to the U.S. by Jim Womack, Norm Bodek, and others.
Dean Meyer (remember, no relation!) then spends about 30% of the article and 90% of his summary of lean by describing the issues surrounding STS (socio-technical systems analysis) and BPR (business process reengineering) as if that had something to do with real lean. Is value from the perspective of the customer mentioned? Nope. Respect for people? Nope. So much for the two pillars of lean. His concluding statement during the "lean description" pretty much says it all:
What about Lean? Well, you can judge for yourself. A cynic might say it’s making all the same mistakes BPR made, but doing so more quickly thanks to kaizen.
His description of six sigma is a bit more accurate, perhaps because it is much shorter thereby giving him less opportunity to show his ignorance. Let’s return to his concluding statements.
Both techniques presume that workflows are routine, predictable, stable and can be flow charted.
No, the lack of predictability and stability are the exact situations that lean and six sigma address. Lean uses one piece flow and standard work to bring order out of chaos. Six sigma uses scientific analysis to determine process capability thereby stabilizing operational parameters. In fact, you often leverage lean to capitalize on market opportunities presented by reduced predictability. New Toyota factories will be able to increase from 3 to almost 10 the number of distinct car models produced, individually and in any sequence, on a single production line… in response to real variations in customer demand.
Apply Lean and Six Sigma to a job that involves diverse tasks, relationships and creative problem solving (like what most IT staff do) and you may find you’ve created a very efficient organization that fails to accomplish its purpose.
The lean method of focusing on value streams instead of functional silos is specifically designed to optimize the creation of customer value within diverse organizations. Perhaps Dean Meyer (no relation) needs to read the recent McKinsey Quarterly that discusses how one of the top two information technology trends is the implementation of lean methods. Not to mention all of the activity going on with lean software development.
But these two methods are certainly not appropriate centerpieces of an organizational transformation program.
Tell that to Danaher and the 600 subsidiaries they’ve acquired and turned around via their lean-driven Danaher Business System. Tell that to all of the healthcare organizations that are starting to leverage lean to reduce costs while delivering more value to their customers. And tell that to the fledgling programs in government and especially military sectors that are showing real results with lean and six sigma.
Sort of makes you wonder who’s really creative and who really has the blinders on, doesn’t it?