Lean Manufacturing: Anorexia?

Since the word ‘lean’ was first coined in the context of production methods and new managerial skills in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Land of the Rising Sun and then shipped over to the Western world quicker than you could say ‘Toyota’, the race has been on to reduce waste. Waste is anyhow a byword of the modern age we live in. We will do anything and everything these days to eliminate waste. But, maybe it’s time to look at manufacturing and management skills and see if waste elimination has gone too far, and in turn if it has led to something else that we now have to get rid of and concentrate on. Antoine Lavoisier, the founding father of modern chemistry (the guy who named oxygen and hydrogen and who created the list of elements, only to be guillotined for holding up the French Republic in its early stages) once said ‘nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed’, in the 18th century. Looks like what he said holds true in lean manufacturing too. We have gone too far. We didn’t lose anything. We didn’t create anything. We just transformed waste. We shifted it somewhere else and in the process we transformed that lean into fat. Have we gone too lean and transformed ourselves into anorexic workers in the fight for waste reduction?

There is a growing tendency that we are too lean these days. We have produced lean working practices that have led to greater stress for workers.  Lean manufacturing places the worker at the very heart of the elimination of waste elimination. But, how can we ask a salaried worker to be the main actor in lean production, when that lean production actually has a direct impact on the worker in question. Lean manufacturing also produces a standardization of production. That’s a major key area of the successful implementation of being lean. Standardization kills creativity. Lack of creativity means a bored customer. A bored customer means a drop in sales…and so the list goes on.

Yes, there are benefits of being lean. Burning fat is a keyword of our lives today as we over-consume and over-eat in companies around the world. Burning that excess fat is good, but if we go too far and we end up burning too much fat, then we go from lean to damn skinny. Losing the muscle is what needs to be avoided. Yes, lean manufacturing processes reduce lead time (between 5 and 20%). Yes, lean manufacturing increases productivity by 10 to 30%. It has also managed to reduce bottlenecks in production processes and work coming to a halt because other parts of the production line can’t keep up (between 5 and 12%). But where's the muscle?

But, remember what the guillotined Frenchman said! If we are getting gains here, then we are losing something somewhere else. Nothing is lost, nothing is created. We are just transforming that. We have gained in productivity and we have closed lead times in an unbelievable way. But, we have increased stress of workers and reduced creativity that arises from everyday working practices. How many people have created stuff in the normal working day and that didn’t mean to? Alexander Fleming wouldn’t have discovered Penicillin if he had cleaned his work station up before going off on vacation and antibiotics wouldn’t be around today. By getting lean, we have reduced creativity of workers. Isn’t that an essential part also of the act of production?

Creativity leads to happy working practices for people. It plays a major role in their life in companies. It’s the avoidance of mundane, repetitive tasks. It also means that the consumer, the final user gets something new and we get to make that consumer think that that’s what they need. Maybe we should lay off the lean and get some of the fat back on.

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1 Comment

  • Nick Shelley

    Reply Reply August 20, 2013

    A very stimulating article for those of us passionate about manufacturing particularly in the UK. There remains actually, an overwhelming requirement to balance the economies that Lean brings with the creativity that customers are drawn to. The trick is to create the culture where that balance can thrive.

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