The Discipline of Sustaining Lean Principles

You and your company have just taken the big leap into the alluring land of lean manufacturing. You’ve spent some big money on developing your plan, training your people, redesigning your workstations, and implementing Kaizan, kanban and quality improvement programs. Now you can just sit back and watch it all happen in a ‘lean manner’ while the money rolls in, right? Ummmmm, no……that’s not quite how it works. Once you’ve got your lean system in place, the real work has just begun. Sustaining all of the newly implemented rules, guidelines and procedures over the long run is where you’ll really earn your keep. Or not earn your keep, such as the case may be.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen companies spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars converting their world over to a lean environment only to have it stumble and sometimes even fail during the first year or two of implementation. Why does this happen? Well, sometimes it’s the oldest reason in the book: human nature. Just because the physical tools, policies and procedures are in place for a lean manufacturing paradise doesn’t mean that it’s just going to chug on to victory on its own. Before that’ll happen you’ll need to make sure that you’ve got this tricky human nature part fully covered (if that’s even possible).

The most preventable failures that I’ve encountered on lean implementation efforts over the years have all been directly attributable to a lack of discipline in sustaining the program and its procedures. Oftentimes people and companies can quickly become less than diligent in following the core principles and guidelines of their lean manufacturing plan, and their products and profits almost always pay the price when this happens. If you think about it this way, it’s actually quite simple: How can you expect to consistently control the quality of your product if your processes are inconsistent? How can you expect consistent performance from your team if you don’t consistently maintain their working environment? If you set the rules and then nobody follows them, are they really even rules? This sort of nasty bug can debilitate an infant lean company in the blink off an eye.

During the first year of a lean implementation program there is invariably a large amount of pain and discomfort for the people working within the system. Some of it is real and tangible pain, as new skill requirements and streamlined processes usually require all personnel to “step up their game a notch”. And some of it is classic imaginary pain of the “who moved my cheese?” variety that humans often experience when faced with change. Whether it be real or imagined, when this pain becomes more and more palpable for the rank and file team members, newly implemented processes can often become compromised.

When a dramatic process change happens, some experienced personnel tend to think along the lines of “well, this new step is a pain in the butt. I think I’ll leave that part out of our process. This is much more efficient if we do it the old way.” And sometimes, on some specific processes, they may even be technically correct. The old way may be faster and/or more efficient. But what are often lost during these “process adaptations on the fly” are steps that were implemented by a manufacturing engineer in order to support or integrate with another part of the lean process. A step that may seem meaningless, redundant or irrelevant to one phase of a process may actually be critical to another phase. If given too much latitude, well-meaning employees have been known to “tweak” the new process so much that it actually damages the lean implementation effort. And within a year, they’re back to doing everything the old way. After all, who wants to spend every day looking for their cheese, right?

I ran across a good example of this phenomenon a few years ago while working on a new production line at a company that was new to the concepts of lean thinking. The customer had brought us in to consult on lean process development, as well as to build some new lean workstations for the assembly of their product. One of the workstations had a complex set of chemical dispensers that would digitally measure very precise amounts of certain compounds to get an exact mixture of a volatile component. The whole idea of this workstation was to take the inconsistent human element out of the mixing process, thereby making the compounds more consistent.

Once the compounds were metered and dispensed, a high-resolution scale would cross-check the weight to the amount that was metered. The new process required exact weights every time, or the logic would shut down the machine and reject the batch. The process was very reliable, and the logic appeared foolproof. The workstation was quickly put into service with the highest of hopes for instant process quality improvement. After the first week of production, it appeared that the new process was a raging success. The precision dispensing and weighing of the materials was delivering a more consistent performing compound than the customer had ever produced previously. Everyone was ecstatic.

Within a few weeks, things began to change. The product slipped back to similar levels of inconsistency that had been measured from the old process. The ‘great solution’ had belly-flopped, and nobody understood why. After a lengthy investigation it was discovered that the lead operator (who, not coincidentally was always considered the old process “expert”) had decided that he could tell with his eye what mixtures were required better than any fancy dispensers and scales could ever know. From the very beginning this well-meaning expert had felt that the machine-mixed compound was incorrectly configured. “It just wasn’t the right color”, is what he later told us. So after a week or so of painfully watching the ‘incorrect’ new compound ship out, he took matters into his own hands. After a machine-mixed batch of the compound was completed, our expert would carry it to a workbench and mix in additional amounts of components to get the color of the compound back to what he considered correct. Once again, consistency met an agonizing death at the brutal hands of the human well-meaner. Unfortunately, it’s an all too common tale.

How can you and your company avoid this sort of disastrous outcome? Setup your lean practices in great detail from day one. Document the procedures that you expect your team to follow and then stick to the established procedures faithfully. Enforce equal faithfulness to the procedures from everyone on the team. If you have a commitment to complete a 5S walkthrough of your shop every day at quitting time, then make sure you do it EVERY SINGLE DAY. If your lean plan calls for a Quality Improvement meeting every week, then make sure you hold that meeting EVERY SINGLE WEEK. This level of discipline in the system is extremely important for management people to embrace. As soon as team members see someone from the leadership team slack off on the procedures, they automatically give themselves permission to do the same. Be careful what examples you set. Don’t let apathy or “expertise” destroy all your hard work. It’s a very slippery slope when we start picking and choosing which procedures we feel like following and which we don’t.

So am I saying that every lean process ever invented should be locked in stone and never changed or evolved? No, of course not. Constant process improvement and enhancement are a big part of a developing lean organization. But changes and improvements must be made systematically. All potentially impacted areas of the process must be represented and considered before any changes are actually implemented. The changes must be well-documented, properly published in all applicable manuals or work orders, and presented to the team in a formal training environment. If you deploy your process enhancements in this manner every time, everyone on the team will always implement the changes in the same way. This will give the much sought-after consistency a fighting chance at a sustained life. If you count on ‘word of mouth’ training to officially deploy your changes, your precious consistency will surely be compromised.

Once you and your company make it down that long road of lean implementation, don’t let your guard down! There is no such thing as ‘arrived’ in the lean world. It’s a constant journey that needs to be navigated carefully at all times. Remain diligent and disciplined and your product and company will consistently reap the benefits that come from a great plan that’s been well-executed. Stick to the plan.