Lean requires a top-down approach too

Lean is still misunderstood by many. While large groups use Lean largely as a toolbox, others will consider it as a change philosophy. Both views unfortunately do not do justice to the Lean concept.

The group that supports Lean as a change philosophy justly refers to the unexpected forces that it can release on the shop floor. Now I will be the last one to deny this; the knife does indeed cut both ways. With employee involvement and focus on waste, you can on the one hand release a wealth of experience, knowledge and creativity from the employees that are confronted with all sorts of waste on the shop floor day in and day out. If they do not know, who does? On the other hand, chances of acceptance are maximised, since the employees themselves are involved in creating and realising the solutions. And success happens to equal quality x acceptance!

Don’t look for the big bonanza in operator suggestions
Based on proven success stories, the supporters of Lean as a change philosophy seem to find the truth on their side. However, they do not get away with it so easily. In fact, an interesting question is how much change you can and may expect from the shop floor. In the Lean bestseller The Gold Mine (2005) the Ballé brothers write about this: “The truth of the matter is that operators’ suggestions rarely contribute significantly to cost savings”. As for me, they hit the nail on the head. Right?

Or did you happen to think that the idea of a bed manufacturer to use lead time flexibility to swop the old job shop environment for a flow shop eminated from the floor? Or did you really believe that Toyota’s idea to apply an order balloon to be able to produce exactly the same number of cars every day really arose from the floor?

Of course not! This kind of ideas hardly ever comes from the floor. Ground breaking ideas require the ability to take a helicopter view and look at the whole system integrally. Fundamental change requires vision.

Fundamental change requires addressing demand variability
If you want to attack the seven well known areas of waste, including work in process and overproduction,  the shop floor is of course the place to be. If you are looking for fundamental change however, this will not suffice. In this case you will have to eliminate the real waste.

In case you want to attack the real waste, you will have to make your primary process manageable to begin with. This means that you will have to start working on the root cause of unmanageability: demand variability. The bed manufacturer mentioned above and Toyota showed you the way. Lean calls the root cause of unmanageability unevenness (mura) and proposes to counter it by levelling. And don’t be shocked…

…extra inventory in the right place could play a very important role here! Unfortunately, due to the focus on Lean as a toolbox and a change philosophy, this message has been relegated to the background. The consequence is that the true power of Lean often remains unleashed. Even worse, in many cases the dogmatic application of misunderstood Lean principles leads to the opposite effect.

From stepladder to a serious paint ladder
In case you regard your organisation as a stepladder and you are happy with getting one step up, a united plan of attack of the seven waste areas is the right approach. However, if your ambitions reach beyond that and you are determined to reach the highest step of the paint ladder, you will have to play a completely different game. In this case you require ground breaking ideas, vision and leadership. And a true leader ties vision to his/her ability to involve the employees in it and lure them into action. Important, because success happens to equal quality x acceptance.

It all starts with vision; the realisation that fundamental change begins with the successful fight against the root cause of unmanageability: demand variability or unevenness. The shop floor unfortunately is not the place to identify and sort this out. Lean demands a top-down approach after all.

Alex Tjalsma is partner with Involvation, supply chain consultancy