UpFront: Real Change is Painful
By Brian J. Hogan
We all understand that, to succeed, manufacturing companies must eliminate waste, take advantage of relevant new technologies, encourage teamwork, and partner with vendors and customers. And tell me, laddie, how many companies actually do all these things? Let's be kind and simply observe that, whatever the number may be, it isn't a large one relative to the aggregate of firms out there.
Why not? Well, suppose a person who's clinically obese, someone whose health is truly endangered by their immense weight, goes to a doctor and asks for advice. The physician then says something like: "Eat less and exercise more."
That's good advice! It's simple, it's direct, and the individual certainly has the power to carry it into effect. And the likelihood that said individual will succeed in eating less and exercising more—for any length of time—is probably nil.
The person's physical condition reflects a way of life. It may be an unhealthy way of life, but changing that lifestyle will be very painful, thus difficult to sustain, even though the person knows that failing to change may be life-threatening. Changing a lifestyle requires, at the least, courage, a strong will, and realistic milestones and goals.
All these comments apply when we ask why manufacturing companies are not all lean, flexible, production machines. Companies are communities made up of human beings. People find comfortable ways of doing things. Those ways may always have been wasteful, or they may have made sense in 1955, but are not exactly cutting edge nowadays. But they are "how we do things here." Doing our work differently than we've been doing it is just as hard as eating less and exercising more.
Actually adopting lean practices, and sustaining those practices in the workplace, is tough. Allowing customers to look at your books, and establishing the level of trust that enables you to work with them on a partnership basis, is painful. Teamwork on the floor or in the office? Sell that to the supervisor or office manager who thinks you're trying to eliminate his/her job.
Worse, try persuading a CEO to surrender some of his decision-making power to subordinates. It's hard, very hard, to adopt a new way of living and working. Doing so means driving the organization through changes that involve all of the people who make up the company.
Yet it's not impossible. Internationally, the shining example is Toyota; I'm sure you can name others. There's ample evidence that success in this effort can bring great prosperity, and the ability to make competitors squeak.
Courage, realistic milestones, clear goals; start there and get advice from those who've already taken this path. Also, eat less, exercise more—really, it's good for you!
This article was first published in the April 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.