Avoid Fad Labels, Focus on Content

This is in response to Debbie Phillips-Donaldson’s column, “Lean: Cure-all or Fad?” (Up Front,
p. 6, July 2006). Lean should not be thought of only as a set of technical methods for cost reduction. It also must address the culture of the organization. If a company thinks of lean as just a project without properly educating its workforce, the chances of success are limited.

Also, using the “fad” label is an interesting phenomenon in the quality world. We make a concept a hot topic or a fad when we focus on its packaging rather than its content. ASQ has fallen into this trap by following the trend of labeling methods instead of concentrating on the heart of the matter—better quality and timely delivery at lower cost.

Shraim Quality and Productivity Solutions
Columbus, OH

Lean Works Well as Business Philosophy

Lean as a business philosophy is excellent (“Lean: Cure-all or Fad?” Phillips-Donaldson). Until American companies realize lean enterprise means the office, engineering, purchasing and so on and apply the same waste reduction and problem solving methods throughout the entire organization, they will never get the full benefit they so badly need.

Lean certainly is not a fad. The Toyota production system was started in the 1960s, has evolved and will continue to evolve. I had kaizen training when I worked at an auto supplier in 1987. Lean is a fad only at organizations that do not truly understand it and give up.

Grand Haven Gasket Co.
Grand Haven, MI

Lean Sometimes a Fad, But That’s not Bad

A quality fad (“Lean: Cure-all or Fad?” Phillips-Donaldson), I suspect, is a set of plausible sounding concepts that actually seldom delivers much in practice, so it dies out. That can happen when approaches that worked well in a specific situation or organization, for example Toyota, are generalized globally.

In the case of lean manufacturing, the concept of lean was enhanced with the value added concept, the power of teams, the knowledge of the workers closest to the work and the magic of saving money, time and materials through shorter cycle times, just-in-time materials and minimum life cycle costs.

Article writers, book publishers and seminar presenters have borrowed many of the concepts from statistical process control, total quality management and Six Sigma to make an overblown reincarnation of the old idea of value added engineering. Each new fad builds on the fads that preceded it.

If it helps someone make a living or keep his or her job, it’s OK with me. Perhaps each new synthesis of ideas somehow advances the art and science of quality a little bit.

McCormick Quality Systems
Katy, TX

Tischler Article Leaves Something to Be Desired

Ken Tischler’s article (“Bringing Lean to the Office,” July 2006, p. 32) shows a terrific example of lean implementation. Having worked in my own college’s labor and financial aid office (precomputerization) and as a former graduate student, I appreciate the need for these improvements as well as the benefits of on-campus projects. I commend him for teaching these methodologies at the undergraduate and graduate levels and cannot argue with his results.

However, the underlying
message seems to be that even college students can do it. I contend that the speed at which these projects were successful is due to the students’ having been recent customers of the university’s admissions process. They had first hand experience with the process. This is not a bad thing—it’s the kind of experience one wishes for an improvement project.

In my limited experience, external customers typically provide voice of the customer input the organization uses to drive change. Rarely do external customers actually participate in determining and implementing those process changes. There is also little mention in Tischler’s article of internal customer (the university staff) requirements, buy-in necessary from the process owners (other than a brief mention of initial skepticism) or the cost justification process for outsourcing admissions calls and building websites. These things can represent real barriers.

It would have been interesting to see a project for an area with which the students were less familiar, perhaps an internal campus support or service group that is more invisible to the student body.

Eli Lilly and Co.
Indianapolis, IN

Lean Is Anything But Simple

A statement by Len Tischler really struck me. The first line of the third paragraph is: “Lean is simple.”

I could not disagree more and am surprised to hear it from someone with Tischler’s authority. The statement oversimplifies the whole lean concept, misleading readers who might not have had a lot of exposure to lean.

Lean is not simple at all. Some of the tools may be easy to understand and some easy to apply, but lean is anything but simple. I teach applied statistics to Six Sigma Black Belts and Green Belts, but the hardest part of my job is teaching lean.

Statistical concepts may be difficult to understand for someone without the proper mathematical training, but the only thing that person needs to do is to find a statistician and the problem is solved. Anyone who has tried to transform plants based on lean concepts knows dealing with people and cultural change is never simple, no matter how easy it is to teach the tools.

Tischler uses good examples to show basic applications of some lean tools in a specific environment. When we move to the real world and deal with complicated processes that include the human element, it is not that easy.

When we say lean, the first thing we should think of is people. I’ve visited many plants in Japan, Europe and North America and have developed programs with Toyota, General Motors, Ford and Nissan. There must be a complete paradigm shift in our way of doing things in North America to successfully compete with Japanese companies. Lean is difficult, and we need to give it the respect it deserves.

Kautex Textron Inc.
Windsor, ON

Author’s Response:

I should have said lean is simple but not easy, meaning lean is generally simple to understand but not necessarily easy to implement. I apologize for possibly misleading some readers.

However, in some ways I agree, and in some ways I disagree with you. I don’t think teaching lean to factory workers is very hard. In my experience they love it, because someone is finally listening to them and they are gaining the knowledge and freedom to make changes themselves instead of being told what to do by people who often know less about the job.

My difficulty has always been helping the managers act differently—to give up some authority and open their budgets for continuous training, innovation and change. I also see them sliding back to an inner focus rather than a customer focus; it seems like a natural tendency when things seem to be going fairly well.

I find teaching the basic lean concepts and tools, especially to office workers, is relatively easy. As they get into the training process, they are usually fascinated (they understand the flow of their process better than ever before), ask excellent questions, give excellent suggestions and are on board for implementation experiments.


Tischler’s Value Stream Maps Incomplete

In “Bringing Lean to the Office,” Tischler has successfully mined buzz words from existing lean publications.

I would recommend he consider reading the book Learning to See by Jim Womack (2003, Lean Enterprise Institute) to learn how to properly construct a value stream map. The “value streams” he illustrates are process flowcharts that are more in alignment with total quality management than lean. These flowcharts do not show the information or timeline flows essential to differentiating value stream maps from process flowcharts.

Analytical Services Inc.
Huntsville, AL

Author’s Response:

For simplicity’s sake I left the data off the map. However, if you look at the bottom of p. 34, you’ll see the article mentions processing time, wait time, and work in process (WIP), which are the primary measures relevant for an office situation. You’ll also see throughout the discussion of the first case that we had and used measures of both processing times (in minutes) and wait times (mostly in days).

We didn’t break processing time down into seconds because that’s often overkill in an office situation. We also didn’t collect WIP data, and the results of the effort showed this was a good decision.

I agree Learning to See and its companion workbooks are excellent for understanding lean and learning the value stream mapping process. In adapting and applying these techniques to an office situation, it isn’t necessary to follow every step in the same detail or way as one would for a factory. It would go against lean theory to measure more than necessary for the particular situation.


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