Lean or flabby?

Lean manufacturing has become the byword for efficiency across industry. But how many companies, particularly in the UK, are simply paying lip service to lean principles? E&T argues that less talk and more graft is needed.

The headlong rush into lean has resulted in many misapplications of lean tools/techniques due to inadequate understanding of the purpose of the tools. I constantly get phoned by people who it appears have lifted up a manual at a bookshop and want to do six sigma, or lean six sigma, or TQM (total quality management), or TPM (total productive maintenance).

The misapplication of lean tools takes different forms. One key misapplication is the use of the wrong tool to solve a problem. A second is the use of a single tool to solve all problems. The third is to use the same set of tools on all problems. Because a consultancy is good at one tool, they will try and crack every problem with it. But they won’t.

Another major problem is the pure lack of understanding of what the tools/techniques are. These tools/techniques include six sigma, lean/six sigma, TQM, TPM and agile. But I believe that without the foundation stone of genba kanri in place, these tools and systems fundamentally will not work.

Genba kanri means ‘workshop management’, the system by which standards for running the day-to-day business are established, maintained, controlled and improved. It involves the application of 3S (ensuring everything’s in place), standard operations (ensuring an activity is repeatable), skill control (ensuring the operator can carry out the standard operation), kaizen (continuous improvement), autonomous maintenance of equipment, and work measurement to quantify waste and improvements.

One example of the right way to do things is the Nissan auto plant at Sunderland in the UK. During the plant’s first eight years it focused on the introduction of genba kanri. It moved on to no other tools until these principles were embedded across all the workforce including management.

Moreover, the Sunderland plant works to 3S, not 5S. So does a Honda plant I’ve recently visited in Japan. When I questioned Honda about this they said: “Hmm, four and five are very difficult.” I believe that 4S and 5S are almost impossible to implement in the West.

Standard operations ensure that the activity is repeatable. If you cannot guarantee that the person will do the same thing in the same manner over all shifts, every time, you will not get consistency. Skill control ensures that the operator carries out the standard operations correctly. You also need small kaizen activities to improve the standard operations.

Small levels of continuous maintenance by the operator are also required to ensure that the basic tools are in a good condition. If an operator is not operating in this environment, I believe you will not get any level of predictability. These issues were focused on by every operator for the first eight years at the Nissan Sunderland plant. Every operator has to be able to carry out these operations to set measurement, quality, cost and delivery criteria.

However, these tools are glossed over in every company I visit. To date we have done work with 204 companies in the North East of England. Most of them have said: “We do 5S”. But they don’t. There are some very good companies, but lamentably many have lost the ability to carry out work measurement in the workplace. We cannot quantify waste, partly because many industrial engineers have been made redundant. Companies also have a fear about quantifying waste.

Of the 240 companies we visited we found that only 28 per cent had applied 5S rules of workplace management. Only 29 per cent had introduced kaizen (small team improvement activities), while just 30 per cent were doing problem solving. The proportion doing standard operations was better, at 37 per cent, while 41 per cent were doing skill control and 43 per cent work measurement.

Because of this lack of application of lean tools in industry we are getting incredibly low levels of schedule achievement, high levels of stock, and high levels of overtime to make up for this. This is no different from findings from other regions of the UK.

The tools themselves all have a level of dependence, which is why you can’t pick one in isolation. One example to illustrate this is doing a changeover activity. First, you have to quantify where the waste is in the changeover. As a result of this, you get the initial impact; but then it inevitably falls off again. The reason it falls off is because 3S, standard operations, skilled control and basic activity are not there to support it.

A common misconception is that people think that 3S or 5S is housekeeping. But it is not housekeeping. It is a control mechanism to ensure that the other factors work. It has nothing to do with an operator being in a clean environment; the clean environment is a by-product. In Toyota, for example, it’s there to operate kanban. Without 3S or 5S you cannot operate kanban. 5S is not a five-minute clean-down at the end of the shift or a new shadow board.

For the UK to move forward, we need a vision of change, not a book. But we don’t know how to manage change, and for this we need leadership of change. However, before we manage the change process we need a diagnostic – this will tell us what we need to do in a specific company to address the business need. This is applied in all companies supported in the region.

There are many lean tools but they will fall over unless we have the knowledge of how to apply them. The explicit knowledge of the tools is important, but crucial is the tacit knowledge of how to apply them – that’s what we have to build up. Then we need a human resources department to help, because the consequences of applying lean can be problematic. Some people won’t want to be part of the process; some will want to leave the organisation. People will need to be trained. Nissan at Sunderland spent thousands of hours training everyone over and over again. But many companies completely misunderstand the need for training.

I’ve done some work with an economist at Newcastle University who was looking at the impact of authority on the factory operator. To gauge this, we started with 50 questions, which was reduced to 25, and then down to just two: do you know what you are doing and, are you treated with respect? If an operator answers “no” to both questions, you have a very big problem.

When a company embarks on lean, it should not be the Nissan Way, or the Toyota Way, it should be “our” way to compete. According to one retired Toyota manager, the four pillars of lean success are: quality and service to the customer; developing employee potential; cost reduction through elimination of waste; and building a flexible production capability.

But this is not just a manufacturing issue: all related departments must be involved, whether they be maintenance, purchasing, scheduling, and so on. But the evidence is that companies are not prepared to understand and accept this. They see lean purely as a production issue. Moreover, training for managers and supervisors in applying the correct lean tools must be ongoing, to ensure they have the ability to collect the data and select the correct tool for the application.

Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo, two of the founders of the Toyota Production System, said: “Understanding demands more than simply knowing; we have to know why it is the way it is...”

Ono reputedly used to draw a circle on the production line and tell a young engineer to stand in it for the entire shift and observe. Then he would ask them what happened. The upshot was that that engineer actually understood what happened that day. But in the West we do not like to stop, observe and understand. We want quick diagnostic, quick synopsis and quick action.

But observation is not enough; we must also have the ability to act upon it. I have found in my work with hundreds of companies that getting companies to act upon what they know is one of the hardest things to achieve. To get people to actually stop and apply the lean tools is very, very difficult. For some reason, companies simply won’t do it despite the proven demonstrable benefits.

In Japan they run kaizen events over and over – even after work, during Saturday mornings, through holidays.

But in the West we do not have the will to do this. And because of this we don’t have the real ability to improve. Instead, we look for packaged solutions, rather than recognising that what’s needed is an ongoing grind of picking up and applying knowledge.

Companies must examine the workplace and ensure the training provided to production people is applicable. Then people must be required to use the training to get business results. To this end, we at One Northeast, the Regional Development Agency, are running about 150 major activities per year on production lines to implement the learning tools. Activities are backed up by national qualifications to a recognised standard.

Dr Colin Herron is a visiting professor at Newcastle University and works for One Northeast Development Agency   colin.herron@onenortheast.co.uk


*Please note: This article first appeared in the October 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineer magazine 

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