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Lean Manufacturing: The Difference between Thinking & Doing Lean

Lean Manufacturing: The Difference between Thinking & Doing Lean

These days, it seems like everybody claims to be doing lean manufacturing or some version of it. Sadly, when a company says it is “doing lean,” it’s a sure sign that they don’t get really it. Early gains have given these companies a false confidence that there’s nothing else to learn. Almost always, what they mean is that, in manufacturing operations, they have been practicing methods such as 5S, value stream mapping, inventory reduction, and other common practices associated with lean. Lots of people have been trained. Many kaizens have been conducted. Maybe a few office processes have been streamlined.

But lean is not about just applying tools or improving operations - that’s the easy part. After years of experience and study, the simplest ideas like hoshin kanri, or even kaizen, will blossom into a deeper understanding. A glimmer of the wholeness and subtleties of lean will appear. Furthermore, the idea that decades of improvement are ahead will begin to dawn on these companies. Even Toyota, which has been called the model of a lean enterprise, is still working on it.

However deep an understanding the lean leader has, he or she will be doomed to decades of frustration as long as top management thinks lean doesn’t apply to them. That’s the biggest problem I hear about when I talk to lean champions.

What will it take for C-level executives to figure out what it really means to think lean, not just to do lean?

Well, no operations manager is going to be able to move the ball with the usual argument. Dr. Jeff Liker goes in depth on this issue sharing valuable insight into how to get the C-suite involved in a recent blog post. But, truth be told, it takes CEOs to influence CEOs. They have to venture outside their own management suites and boardrooms and go see what leaders of award-winning companies are doing. Having reached out -- or accepted an invitation from a fellow CEO to visit -- the smart CEO will see that there’s something different going on in a company where lean shapes its entire business system.

To dig deeper, the smart CEO will find a successful lean networking consortium of other C-level executives. There they can protect their vulnerabilities and open up about problems. They can share dreams and woes. They can reach out to experts on an issue and set up a call or a meeting with them. They can tour the best companies in the world and take part in major Lean conferences. The Association for Manufacturing Excellence Champions Club is an example of such a group. As Dave Hogg, founder of the High Performance Manufacturing Consortium, told Steve Denning in an interview in Forbes, a true learning network is not ad hoc. According to him, it commits to good governance, regular meetings, a vision, a strategic plan and measurable goals.

No network readily available? With the right facilitation and support, and a governance model that complies with antitrust laws, CEOs can establish one. Even without a formal association, there are study missions and meetings specifically organized for chief executives.

Leading a lean company is exhilarating. Just ask these lean leaders:

  • Gary Convis - who has held executive positions at Bloom Energy Corporation, Dana Holding Corporation and Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky
  • Bob Chapman - Chairman & CEO of Barry-Wehmiller
  • Dan Ariens - CEO of Ariens Company
  • Alan Mulally - who just stepped down as CEO of Ford Motor Company

It’s been shown again and again that, when the CEO sees the lean way forward, things really start to get interesting.

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray Construction.