L.A.M.E. as Heard on NPR?
Oh no, it seems like a L.A.M.E. (“Lean As Misguidedly Executed”) story on NPR’s All Things Considered program. No wonder some people hate the idea of Lean when stories like this appear (“Do You Waste Time Walking To The Printer?“). Thankfully, the “efficiency expert” who was featured didn’t use the L-word, but he did mention 5S and the 8 types of waste… and seemed, at first glance, to lack any use of the “Respect for People” principle.
“Efficiency expert” is such an old-school Fred Taylor / Frank Gilbreth sort of word. In the old Taylorist approach, you had educated managers or engineers hovering over workers, trying to come up with a better way to do the work (as you see pictured to the left, where it even appears to be sexist). In this old approach, there’s a separation between thinking and working, between system design and daily execution. Lean is all about engaging the people who do the work, teaching THEM how to make improvements. The guy in that story seems to miss that. Or maybe it’s just his company that forces him to operate in that style.
Matt LeBlanc, an efficiency expert at a global shipping company, is a kind of special ops guy. His company drops him into its locations armed with a stopwatch, equations and a mission to save the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars.
An engineer with a stopwatch, a guy from corporate “here to help” (doesn’t that make people scurry??), and a cost-cutting mission. That doesn’t sound like Lean to me.
He stands and watches people work, watching them unload trucks. It’s described as “weird.” Of course it is.
In a Lean approach (and this has been my style in my previous consulting), you teach the people who do the work about Lean concepts and you let THEM figure out improvements that they own. Make their work easier and provide better value to the customer. People can figure this out. You don’t need that old-style of efficiency expert.
What happens when the efficiency expert goes away? I bet things go back to the old way, the old methods. The so-called “cost savings” probably dry up and disappear.
Not surprisingly, people don’t always like when LeBlanc shows up. They don’t like to be told they’ve been wasting time. They worry he might find that their whole job is unnecessary.
“I’ve been physically threatened in a meeting once by someone because I moved their desk from one side of the room to the other,” he says. The lesson: “You can’t just move people’s desk, staplers. You have to move people along.”
Not that I’m justifying threats and workplace intimidation, but it’s understandable, eh?
Let me be clear about this — you don’t go moving people’s stuff without involving them. Period. LeBlanc claims he has learned a lesson — is he acting differently now? The story seems to tell it both ways — he’s the guy who tells people what to do, yet he understands you need to get people involved. Which is it? I’ll admit to similar mistakes earlier in my career… before I fully appreciated the Respect for People principle from Toyota.
The audio talks about the fear of layoffs from productivity improvement — of course, people are afraid of this sort of thing. That’s why a lot of Lean organizations have a “no layoffs due to Lean” philosophy. You redeploy people for business growth or career growth – it’s the right thing for a business for the long term (as long as sales haven’t completely gone into the crapper).
Some of the ideas he expressed make sense. Yes, I *do* put creamer in the mug before coffee when I make it for my wife (I drink my coffee black). Moving printers to reduce walking can be a time saver. But, the employees can figure these things out when you create an environment for improvement of work. When THEY figure it out, they take pride in their improvements. When it’s some guy from corporate who tells them what to do, they get pissed off. Go figure.
Another point from the piece:
People like LeBlanc are one reason why things are so cheap. If he reduces labor costs, then the price of MP3 players can come down.
No, no, no. In the Lean approach (and as taught by Toyota), prices are set by the market, by the consumers (in most cases – monopolies and health care are weird exceptions). If you reduce labor cost, that means more profit for the company. You don’t base your prices on costs. If you lower your costs below the market, you’re giving money away (unless that’s your strategy to undercut the market to build market share). Does Apple lower the price of the iPhone if they found manufacturing and supply chain efficiencies? I doubt it! More profit for Apple and Steve Jobs.
p.s. My spice rack is NOT alphabetized, by the way. And I don’t have my bathroom toiletries lined up in the order I use them in the morning.
Another thought – the audio gives a little more balanced view of things. The web story makes him sound like a real Taylorist. The audio makes him sound a little more self-aware when you really hear him speak.