RL Magazine
Technical Trends
by L. Bryant Underwood

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I attended my first Lean-Sigma training with a focus on Kaizen events in 2001. Previous to my Lean-Sigma training I had received training on various other ‘flavors’ of process management that were to be THE new way to fix all production ills. These included; Quality Circles, Total Quality Management and Voice of the Customer. Limited to just Lean-Sigma events, I have participated in, witnessed or audited the results of 100 or so Kaizen events across six companies. In that entire time I never documented any savings or benefit to a repair process or to most manufacturing operations, six months after the Kaizen event. In spite of the terrific charts, great PowerPoint, joyous meetings and backslapping pizza parties to celebrate the achievement-my total experience with all things ‘Lean’ has been worse than a joke.

What is even more damning is that almost universally when you have dinner or lunch with the Industrial Engineers involved off-site, they all concur that what they are doing has limited value at best and may be detrimental, but they would prefer to keep their jobs over discussing the failures. The problem is there is such an evangelistic desire for Lean-Sigma/Six-Sigma to be the solution to getting a business back on track, that it is considered heresy to make any negative observations or comments. The good news is that tide is changing and the truth is bubbling up. The result will be good for all especially the “Lean Movement” itself.

Since 2008 on there have been a flurry of articles documenting the high rate (~60%) of failure from “Lean” projects. What is behind this trend that is causing a program of such promise to deliver such levels of disappointment? One article pointed to an engineering concept called the Stress-Strain Curve as the problem. For me I had always held a similar view rooted in the cognitive dissonance of the Hawthorne Effect. Make any change good or bad and then pay a lot of attention to it and for the period while you are watching, all looks great. Turn your head and it all falls apart. Sound familiar? Very much the Industrial Engineering equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat-you never really know if the changes worked until you open the box (or look at the P&L six months later).

As I have further considered in more detail the various implementations of Lean projects or Kaizen events, I have since refined my opinions. What I now feel is at the root of how and why Lean in all it’s variations fails is principally originates in Management focus and Operational noise.

MANAGEMENT FOCUS: The one area that I have seen positive results from when Lean is implemented is when the project focuses on waste. Almost every Black Belt will tell you, that waste reduction is the one area where Lean as a method works best. In fact they will typically target ~80% of any possible benefit from Lean Methods will result from the purging of waste. What seems to happen is that a Lean Program will start at a company and have some quick wins on eliminating waste. These improvements tend to actually work, at least for a time. Once solved, what project should the Lean team tackle next? Well of course, the focus begins to shift to process. As the management team moves for greater focus on process and to a specific schedule (this quarter) to deliver the results, a positive outcome for the project becomes less likely.

Plainly stated-this skewed focus on process over waste comes from management ignorance. If a company is succeeding in any manner, it must be innovating. This rate of change from innovation is accelerating at a rate that most senior managers struggle to keep up with. By the very nature of success from innovation senior management begins to know less and less about what is really going on and what levers to pull to manage the operation successfully. So the Industrial Engineers go off and attempt to drive process change and meet the schedule and financial targets. The results reported back are all positive and the failure from the project in January is ignored as the details of the project we are working in May are now front and center. This also plays into a form of hubris from the anonymity of the process. Perhaps better said another way, who do you blame if the results don’t appear? Really no one. You just blame the process. The protection gained by managers from the process is another powerful attractor for Lean management techniques. There is always a reason to point forward to the next project that will have a better outcome, next quarter…

OPERATIONAL NOISE: The best way I can think of to explain this issue is to recount a true story. You may not believe it but I assure you this is true. At a contract manufacturer I worked for several years ago, a new COO was hired from GE. He was a huge believer in Lean in all its forms but had little understanding of Reverse Logistics. One of the requirements he flowed down to all the operational sites was that ‘every program needed to have a Kaizen event every week’. On the surface that may not sound too bad. But let me share with you the outcome from a single repair production line.

Each week a group of 4-8 staff would be removed from the production line for a week for the Kaizen event. They would get a day or two of training, spend a day or so on the production line re-engineering the process. Followed by the final day or so documenting the results. The results were always positive. I was tasked to look at the preceding eight months of data and report on why the site was not making money. During that period the reported benefit from the various Kaizen events reflected that the MPUs (minutes-per-unit) was negative. Yes, you read correctly. If the Kaizen reports were to be believed, the product was repaired before it was ever unloaded it from the trucks! Obviously this was not reality. What really happened is that there were massive quality issues and MPUs had grown by ~35%.

What was causing the failure? Consider something as complex as a repair process. If I am changing out a portion the staff once a week and then rolling out a process change-what will be the result? Total and utter chaos. No one really knew what the process was and with all the noise there was no way to hold anyone accountable. The good news is that now there were a lot of new areas to start eliminating waste from.

In closing I would share these thoughts in avoiding the thought tunnel of Lean-Based-Failure. The Innovation cycle is accelerating. Operational processes are an outcome from that innovation. This rate of change leaves top management really not understanding enough of the details to effectively direct anyone. Delegation and open communication is key as is an unflinching reliance on objective measures and a commitment to creating a sustainable operation. Don’t destroy what you have, while trying to make it better.

Bryant Underwood manages Public Safety Sourcing for Cassidian Communications, an EADS North America Company in Frisco Texas.

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