Lean Tools Not Working In Pharma


Lean proves mean in drug manufacturing

Sigh, yet another attempt to say “lean doesn't apply in our industry.” A survey of pharma companies shows they think lean isn't working.

“The survey of more than 1,500 pharmaceutical manufacturers, conducted by solutions specialist Invistics, showed that, while more than half of the respondents said their companies have implemented Lean, Six Sigma or Operational Excellence, less than half of those lean initiatives have produced satisfactory results.”

It's like the old Jeff Liker comments that half of auto suppliers were talking lean and only 2% were really doing it. Well, of course you're not going to get great results from lean if you're focused on lean tools and how your process isn't like an assembly line, as this article implies about the pharma world.

For one, be careful that the survey was sponsored by a software company that has an interest in selling a software solution that “makes lean fit” that industry. I'd argue the real problem is management not focusing on “lean management” concepts, not a lack of software.

The survey says

“…the fundamental complexities of the pharmaceutical manufacturing process raise challenges not found in simple high-volume manufacturing plants that can dedicate production equipment to specific product lines, such as automobiles and computers.”

That statement is incredibly insulting to people who work in discrete manufacturing, such as a car plant. Building high-quality cars in high-volume is “simple?” I think not. An assembly factory can't be run by chimps. It requires thinking, continuous improvement, and problem solving.

Ah, thinking and problem solving — that's the part of “lean” that DOES apply, whether it's manufactuing, healthcare, airlines, financial services, etc. I'm sure pharma facilities are full of smart people (unlike the “simple” factory folks). To me, “lean pharma” would be a management change to a Toyota Way style approach — involving and empowering employees, solving problems, using TPM and other methods to ensure equipment uptime, etc.

I get tired of hearing excuses why lean isn't right for a certain plant, company, or industry. The healthcare world (such as hospitals) are trying to figure out how to make Lean WORK, rather than making excuses for why it doesn't. Excuses = lame management.

Speaking of lame management, don't forget how Merck was bragging about using lean to drive headcount reductions. Dumb, dumb, dumb. if you search google for “lean Merck,” you find this blog and my criticism of them front and center. Moves like that are yet another reason why lean wouldn't be taking off – if people think lean will cost them jobs, then they'll make sure lean doesn't work, software or not!

Maybe the headline should read “Short-sighted Non-Lean Management Proves Mean”??

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. This is typical Marketing garbage for the Software being pushed. Unfortunately, the management (cannot call them leaders, leaders have a vision and execute, not make excuses) have let themselves become fascinated and controlled with and by the “Magic Pill” Theory of the IT/IS software fix (no puns intended).

    Working in the Healthcare industry, what I have found is maybe most of these folks have too much education, or maybe it is the wrong education..they need to become more like the ‘simple people’ who run a simple factory with one car down a line (the ignorance displayed in this article is astounding).

    Maybe more time should be spent on understanding and studying how Toyota became what they are (Title could be, “The difficult years of uncertainty – the Taichi Ohno story made for television mini-series with some actor as Ohno”) over the last fifty years…if I am not mistaken they had to deal with high mix models, uncertain forecasts, marketing bets, etc.

    What we need is an “Ohno” in Healthcare who has the backbone and personality to show how it is done. Know of anybody?

  2. Companies might be unhappy because they may not have implemented the lean programs correctly. Companies should forget the buzz words and hype, and instead focus on going after the “low hanging fruit” type of challenges that would yield significant bottom line benefits with practically no out of pocket funds. Next they should optimize the flow of their processes – from customer order entry to on time product/service delivery to the customer – by intimately understanding the respective critical product quality attributes and critical process parameters, and the rest will follow: significant bottom line benefits. This has been my experience with projects I have completed either for my employers or consulting clients from 1980 to date!

    Costas Chantzis, Director, Regulatory Compliance and Operational Excellence, CH2M HILL;

  3. I just would like to notify our readers that my new coordinates are below.

    Feel free to drop me a line or ask me a FREE question. We might be able to help you achieve significant project milestones and bottom line results very quickly and cost-effectively.

    Costas Chantzis, President, technobusiness-solutions.com, cchantzis@technobusiness-solutions.com


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