1. Who are you, what organization are you with, and what are your current lean-oriented activities?
Karen Wilhelm, freelance writer and editor with particular expertise in lean thinking and manufacturing methods. I am a contributing editor to Target magazine, published by the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, where I write profiles of companies successfully employing lean and similar principles. I publish the blogs Lean Reflections and A Writer’s Reflections. I also provide editorial help to individuals and companies with the need to simplify written communications and to make them more easily understood by readers.
2. How, when, and why did you get introduced to lean and what fueled and fuels the passion?
In 1986 when I joined the Society of Manufacturing Engineers as marketing manager for its book and video division, I found that SME was a reseller of several of the first books about the Toyota Production System published by Productivity Press. This was a time when American automobiles were at their worst level of quality ever. I wanted to know more about the work of Shigeo Shingo and Taiichi Ohno and discovered the potential of TPS for tapping the talents of workers at all levels for continuous improvement. My understanding of lean and respect for its power deepened over the years and I yearned—and still do—for managers of all types of organizations to apply lean thinking.
3. In your opinion what is the most powerful aspect of lean?
The lean community is beginning to point to respect for people as the most important pillar of the Toyota Production System, and I agree. When people practice lean together, the experience of community is intrinsically rewarding. Seeing problems, discovering why they are occurring, and solving them is deeply satisfying. The abilities of front-line employees have been underestimated in a hundred years of management thinking, and, although it is difficult to overcome that blindness, the benefits are endless.
4. In your opinion what is the most misunderstood or unrecognized aspect of lean?
The way people, organizations, and processes interact as systems is hard for people to perceive. Seeing and bringing harmony to that dynamic is the only way to bring lasting improvement to an organization.
Coining the label “lean” is the most unfortunate thing that ever happened. That and coupling “lean” with “mean” have created suspicion whenever the word is uttered.
5. In your opinion what is the biggest opportunity for lean in today's world? How can that be accomplished?
I don’t think it is possible to find a biggest opportunity, there are so many. Bringing lean thinking to government is one that would have far-reaching implications, however. Knowing that lean would make a huge difference in all our lives, but being unable to convince mayors, governors, high-level policy makers and our President of its value, makes me feel like I am sitting on a huge treasure chest that people just cannot see.