Choose Continuous Improvement over Lean Manufacturing

Eric Bigelow, Polaris Industries

Some organizations misuse lean manufacturing to overwork their people and reduce the overall headcount. Let me assure you, I am not arguing to counter the fact that reducing the headcount will save money. In the short term, it most certainly will save money. However, this savings in headcount does come at a higher cost.

Some managers seek headcount reduction because they associate fewer operators with increased profits. Elimination of headcount for this reason yields poor results culturally. Soon after launching a campaign such as this, operators will start noticing the intent. This will lead to a refusal to cooperate with any effort to reduce headcount and eliminate waste. The operators will begin to adamantly resist changes because they are fearful of losing their job or possibly contributing to a co-worker’s job loss. This causes stress, conflict, finger-pointing and eventually failure. It also is a surefire way to pit management against the shop floor.

This lack of understanding has left a bad taste in the mouths of many shop-floor employees. Likewise, it has also contributed to the conquered attitude of many managers because they have attempted this idea of “lean” before and have seen it fail more than once. Understandably, this is frustrating for an organization’s leadership as well as other employees. It leads me to the opinion that the word “lean” might need to be eliminated from our vocabulary for a while.

I think when leaders focus strictly on lean, they inevitably pay more attention to the dollar numbers. While the dollar numbers are important, there are other elements within an organization that far outweigh the bottom dollar. These elements create awe-inspiring flexibility and opportunity for future growth.

It is my opinion that running a lean organization is actually a by-product of continuous improvement philosophies, specifically the eighth waste (the underutilization of people). When you focus your sights on lean and lean alone, you miss the bigger picture.

Culture is the most important element to true organizational maturity. Continuous improvement philosophy zeroes in on culture and stimulates its development. It focuses on the people and the success of the organizational team. Its aim is to involve and engage everyone, to educate and stimulate the minds of the people. It requires everyone’s engagement, commitment and trust. It is culture-driven and will help the company grow. Everyone should be trained on its ideals and philosophies.

For a continuous improvement organization to truly thrive, leadership must dedicate at least 85 percent of its efforts to the development of employees through training, influence and on-the-job training. Once the majority of the organization understands the philosophy, then and only then is it time to move to the next step. Otherwise, resistance will remain at the doorstep.

The remaining 15 percent can then be dedicated to implementing the actual tools and engaging employees. The employees who own the process need to make the change and improve the organization’s current state (with assistance from a trained continuous improvement team). Not only does this encourage them, but it also increases the chance that the change will be sustained and standardized.

Organizational leaders must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. You cannot simply read or benchmark other companies and expect that you can photocopy that into your organization. You have to remember a picture is a snapshot in time. It does not tell you what happened before the picture was taken. Therefore, you cannot expect significant, highly profitable changes too fast. You cannot have the baby without going through the labor, so to speak.

Let’s get “lean” out of our heads and start communicating continuous improvement. It’s broader, includes everyone (especially the operators) and will provide long-term gains. Let’s train, empower and engage rather than cut time, rebalance and lay off. 

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About the Author

Eric Bigelow is an industrial engineer and continuous improvement professional. He is currently a lean coordinator located in Spirit Lake, Iowa. He has trained numerous individuals in lean manuf...