Where Would I Be Without Lean?

By Andy Wagner:

I’ve been in industry for a little over ten years now, reading and thinking about lean for at least seven. Thanks to Mark, I’ve been writing about lean for about two years. I’ve read about first-time-yield, customer value, eliminating waste, and respect for people and it’s truly affected, or perhaps infected, the way I think about and react to things around me. However, until two months ago, I was never on the pointy end of the manufacturing spear. For most of my career, I was a design engineer, first in automotive, then aerospace. Feeling the pull of operational excellence, I scored a job as a process engineer about 18 months ago, working to improve producibility and cost, acting as a liaison between engineering and the shop. Now I’m in a new role as Quality Leader for one of the business units in my plant.

It’s different. To say the least. The hours are long. The demands are high and reaction times are short. The problem solving is difficult, and even harder when on the run. I’m getting used to the pace, and most folks say that I’m doing all right in my new world, but I had an interesting thought to myself in the car on the way home after a particularly grueling day:

Where would I be without my vision of what this plant could be if it were lean?

I had a conversation with one of our operators, one of our most skilled, most helpful guys, near the end of the day. I could read that he was pretty exasperated, having spend most of the day doing a set-up that, in his view, wasn’t necessary. We moved the job out of another machine to save two hours chasing a part through the line to make it as a weekend shipper. Two hours saved that will cost us six hours on next week’s schedule.

I could spin this conversation as a sign of poor flow in our shop, poor heijunka due to our traditional MRP system, batch processing due to long set-up times, or our lack of visual controls, but in light of that talk, I mostly see it in terms of Deming:

Point 12: Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship.

How can this man be proud of the diligent, deliberate, accurate set-up that he did today, knowing that it was completely unnecessary? A waste. And knowing that he’ll likely be tearing it down in no time to make room for another whim of our poor production scheduling?

Do these overly frequent set-ups and tear-downs hurt our productivity? Yes.

Our quality? Quite possibly, as each one is a risk for a mistake to be made.

Our delivery? Yes, we’re robbing next week to squeak by this week.

But the larger problem here is our lack of respect for people. We’re not showing one of our best people respect for his work, for his time, for his experience. We’re taking advantage of him.

Reflecting on this in the car, one thing struck me hardest. Exhausted, frustrated, and wondering what to do and how to continue, I had one comfort: I know there’s a better way. It’s not hypothetical, or a crusader’s quest for me. It’s real. It’s been proven, many times and by many people to one degree or another. There is a better way to run this show and I can see it vividly.

It starts with men like Joe who know their trade, who take pride in it and do it well. It starts with listening to their concerns and ideas. Respecting what they do for us. Recruiting them to teach and help us to improve.

There will be other tools and other challenges, but it starts with listening to Joe. I know that to be true, almost as an item of faith. Why do I know that? Is it because I read the books and the blogs? Is it because I watched my hometown, Detroit, ignore its customers and workers for so long? Was it in the water I drank growing up in Henry Ford’s shadow? Is it the good leaders that I’ve learned to emulate or the bad leaders I’ve learned to avoid? I don’t really know, but I do see if very clearly and it gives me hope on those long and doubtful days.

The biggest challenge, however, for Monday, is convincing others. Convincing my team to spend more time listening and more time respecting those who do so much for us. Where would I be without that lean vision, and how do I teach that to others?

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Andy Wagner works for a major aerospace company. Andy blogged here from 2007 to 2010.

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4 Comments on "Where Would I Be Without Lean?"

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  1. Benjamin Mitchell says:

    Thanks for this post. It amazes me how powerful Deming’s statement about robbing workers of pride in workmanship is. I a Project Manager on a software team and one of the things I’m fighting against is the team’s reluctance to continue improving because we’re often told that the work we’ve done is “not that important” from our business sponsor. Your post helped highlight asking the team to do low-valued work is another way of limiting the opportunity to have pride in workmanship.

  2. Mike Davis says:

    Thanks Andy .. excellent point for me too “Where would mI be were it not for my lean training”.
    Most fortunately I joined a Toyota subsidiary when it was a Joint_Venture. Boy, when the Japanese arrived it was a continuous learning experience. Now, 22 years later I’m still rivited by what I’ve learned. Now, retired, I’m trying to pass-on the messages to local manufacturers.
    Thanks for your insight Andy.
    Michael Davis, Canada.

  3. Dean Bliss says:

    Excellent post, Andy. Sometimes as we discuss these things, we forget about the people in the trenches with the daily pressures of running the business and pumping out product (or taking care of patients, as we do). It’s good to keep things in perspective.

  4. rearden215 says:

    Are you saying that management is mostly responsible for the well-being of the worker?

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