When I write anything about Bush, Obama, Congress or the EPA a great wailing begins from some readers that they are not interested in politics - urging me to stick to lean. For those who struggle to see the nexus between Washington, DC and lean manufacturing, or between environmentalism and lean, try this one on for size:
Senator Sherrod Brown from Ohio is pushing something called the IMPACT Act– Investments for Manufacturing Progress and Clean Technology. It will, among other things, more than triple the funding for the Manufacturing Extension Partnerships – the MEPs - but redirect their efforts from lean manufacturing to focusing on helping "manufacturers access clean energy markets and adopt innovative, energy-efficient manufacturing technologies". The good Senator is shooting to give the MEPs an additional $300 million a year for this effort – a pretty nice increase over the $120 million the Senator and his cronies gave them for their core mission – lean manufacturing.
For those who may have been living in a cave and are unaware, the MEPs are the meagerly funded – embarrassingly under-funded – backbone of lean manufacturing in the United States. They are the front line out there in all fifty states teaching the fundamentals of lean to thousands of manufacturers. The Bush administration tried to kill them off completely – twice. The Obama administration has kept them alive – with less money than was budgeted for new office furniture for the Department of Homeland Security.
And now the Democrats in Washington finally want to fund the MEPs – because the only use for factories they can see is "to put our existing manufacturing sector to work, and to scale up to meet the new demand created by the cap and trade program, is to have a dedicated source of funding for investments in component manufacturing,” according to Mr. Phil Angelides. And how, you ask, is Phil Angelides? He is the chairman of an organization called Apollo Alliance – the lobby that actually wrote the bill for the good Senator. His claim to fame is that he was California State Treasurer from 1999 to 2007. You all know how well the treasury of the State of California fared on his watch. The Apollo Alliance is a collection of labor unions, radical environmentalists and liberal Democrats. And they are writing legislation to kill the MEPs and break the back of lean manufacturing.
So we get Cap and Trade to raise manufacturing costs by an estimated 20%, and our manufacturing base redirected to support it by 'producing clean energy technologies', instead of what their customers want.
If this goes through, your local MEP won't have the funds to teach your people the ins and outs of kanban or kaizen, but they will be fully staffed to provide the technical support you need to manufacture wind turbine blades. Is that connection between the environmental full court press from Washington and lean manufacturing direct enough?
Don’t let the critics deter you. Government interference with the market demand is a big problem, and if people think the government doesn’t have a profound influence on how we run our businesses on a daily basis, they have their heads in the sand.
What I find interesting is that like most government spending, we don’t stop to look at the effectiveness of the MEP program with its current funding for core functions such as business development and lean manufacturing.
There are a lot of really great MEPs out there, judging from their impact reports. Likewise, there are also not so many good MEPs. Thankfully, there are some safeguards in place to channel the money to those that provide positive economic impact to the community. Like most things in government, it is a far from perfect program.
Since some MEPs are effective in delivering Lean to the American workforce and some are not, it brings up a valid question: are MEP providers qualified to consult in green technologies? I suspect that most of the work will be subcontracted to independent consultants or firms. In fact, we can all admit that MEPs bring in independents all the times for new Lean topics which do not fall within the standardized curriculum provided by NIST/MEP, e.g. A3, Hoshin Kanri, TWI, etc. Which raises the question: what is the need for the MEP system, if not to serve as middlemen? Is this service value added or non-value added?
Sure, MEP programs are cut rate, which I wonder if it were a private organization would probably violate some anti trust law. As a result, MEPs make learning affordable to many small businesses, but aren’t these manufacturing subsidies just passed on to all of us through more taxes?
I’m sure there are many good MEPs out there, but my experience with them in Michigan was not very positive. Since my company was not in one of the gov’t-targeted “high risk zones,” we never “qualified” for any MEP training. All their resources were funneled into the Detroit-Flint-Saginaw Big Three Wasteland. We found the M-TECH program to be (marginally) more helpful. This was a state-funded education program administered through local community colleges. We encountered a pretty good TQM and lean curriculum through them, at least on the basic level.
Nothing beats having a full-time, in-house sensei, however.
Tim McMahon says
I have had a lot of experience with MASS MEP and they are doing great work. We have utilized their training tools to reinforce our journey. It can be helpful to have outsiders come an reinforce to your work force the journey ahead.
I would say that if you are truly doing lean really practiicing the Toyota principles then you are doing green things. Toyota preaches respect for people and community. To do this you must be considering better ways to do things including work envirnoment and community environment. They have a philosophy of long term thinking (really long, 50 years) so you are more prone to consider longevitiy and your impact on this.
So why not give them more funding and let them serve the community by teaching Lean principles to more compannies and industries and the green will come.
You’re missing the picture on this one. The mission of the MEP was to phase out of the lean consulting business when enough capability had been developed in the private sector.
Ten years on, I would say now there are more than enough lean consultants out there! I am one of them. It has always been a bit irritating to have the government use my taxes to subsidize the MEP to compete with me as a lean consultant trying to make it. I for one will be happy to see them focus on something else like green technologies which is under represented.
I can see the value of promoting lean to small businesses and in this they have done a lot of good. At best the MEP did a good job marketing the benefits of lean manufacturing. Now that lean is mainstream, this function does not need to be subsidized by our taxes.
The MEPs were good at the Lean 101 and teaching the basic tools but relied heavily on contractors like myself for anything advanced. While often grateful for the work, I am keenly aware that they are squeezing me on price and acting as a middle man.
I won’t mention names, but my colleagues have been “blacklisted” by MEPs for writing to their state and local representatives about these issues. A great deal of the MEP budget in my locality goes towards sending their higher-ups to Washington DC and the state capitol to ask for more money and insure funding. I am sure they are busy spending our tax money jetting around right now.
NIST is the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This parent organization of the MEP needs to be one of the leaders of the green technology development in America. The MEP is an ideal arm to implement this in manufacturing. There is nothing the MEP can do from a “standards” or “technology” aspect of lean manufacturing. There is nothing for them to research or develop, only market and hire contractors like me to implement. It’s high time for them to focus on something else.
As far as the green business, what American manufacturers need right now is BUSINESS and not more lean. Not only that, this country needs green energy badly, not more junk that is not green. The Chinese manufacture that stuff well enough. So it’s about time we retooled our factories to make green products using green processes. If we don’t the Japanese or the Chinese will, without a doubt.
If the MEP loses their funding for lean manufacturing it will be a great thing not only for lean practices in this country but also for the manufacturing sector, the consumer and the environment.
Sorry for the rant but it needs to be said.
Rick Bohan says
What Mark said.
Jack Parson says
The push for a slush fund of green money (no pun intended) is exactly that; a push and not a pull. When a green technology is competitive without government subsidies, it will create its own pull and its own opportunity for “Green Field Lean”. An artificial demand creates overproduction; look at what happened to us with housing; a top down push from a few well intentioned, but, tragically misformed government elites. The Europeans are rethinking their subsidization of lean technologies because of the excessive cost of the few green jobs created. (Spain) Can anybody back me up on this assertion?