There are hundreds of books and videos on Lean Manufacturing, you can find them all over the internet. The consultant field is more than saturated with so called “experts” at every turn, promising you the earth as long as you can write a check. The principles of Lean are relatively straightforward when it comes down to it. Admittedly, some of them may be a little tough to get your head around but in theory it all makes sense. The real question for me is how do you do actually implement Lean? How do you create flow and actually make it happen? How do you develop standard work, what does it look like and how do you sustain it? In my mind, these are the really tough questions and this is why Toyota have no problem publishing their production system in great detail and welcoming admirers and competitors from all over the world to tour their factories. I’ll never forget observing a station on the assembly line in the Toyota Motomachi Plant in Toyota City, Japan and being amazed at how repeatable the operator cycle times were. Some of the jobs were almost a minute in length but accurate to plus or minus a second every single time! It was stunning to watch and just like a beautiful portrait or a classic movie, I was in awe wishing I had a fraction of the talent to pull something like that off. Just like the artist or the actor, it’s not something you can do simply by reading or watching. You have to study it, practice it and challenge yourself to excel in an almost fanatical fashion to achieve greatness!
Unfortunately, this is not the approach that is used by most businesses today. What we see today is either blind ignorance leading to bloated operations costs that will inevitably cripple the business or a trivializing arrogance that lean thinking is not important and plays second or third fiddle to the much more glamorous fields of Research and Development and Sales and Marketing (the truth is there are massive improvement opportunities to implement Lean in these spaces too but that’s another subject).
Think about learning to drive and the different competency levels involved. First there is the learner driver who has read all the theory and observed others driving for many years. I liken this to the start up company who has been dabbling with bench scale processes in their garage or kitchen, they think they know what to do but have no idea what it’s like until they start. Then there is the teen driver, a self proclaimed “expert” who talks like a professional but behaves like a newborn baby, unpredictably soiling himself and those around him at regular intervals. This is the successful growing company that thinks operations is easy. The experienced middle aged driver comes next. He has been driving for many years, has nothing new to learn and has never had a ticket! These are the businesses who pat themselves on the back with mediocrity, clawing to meet their targets through annual brainstorming rituals that create chaos in the workforce. Finally there are the professional racing drivers who pay attention to every detail, respect waste in every form and are disappointed if it takes more than 2.5 seconds to change four tires in the middle of a 2 hour race. They are the Toyotas of this world. Which type of driver do you aspire to be?
The harsh reality is that most businesses will never get to the professional racing driver level! This level of performance cannot be bought or traded. It requires hard work and dedication and is simply too much trouble for the majority.
For those that are humble enough to learn, the rewards can be transformational but it demands constant attention to detail and the willingness to critique and challenge everything in almost a religious fashion. A solid foundation of technical understanding is also needed but just like successful hiring, competencies can be trained but attitude cannot and unless you have a relentless desire to pursue excellence you will fail.
Going back to the “how to implement Lean” question. Just like reality TV, there are sexy approaches used by many that tout success but quite often they are futile money making schemes for those promoting them. Be honest with yourself. If you are not prepared to do the hard work to implement Lean, go ahead and roll the dice in the land of mediocrity and passing fads. You may succeed, but if, on the other hand, you are serious about leading the way, focus on the fundamentals and put your energy into learning the tools and techniques that get you to master the details of your operation and facilitate the pursuit of perfection.