Viewpoints: Process Improvement Through the Generations
Recently, while I was visiting my parents, my father brought up his favorite topic of conversation, which centers on, “Just what is it that you do all day?” I explained to him that I work with companies that are implementing lean rules, which are the principles and tools required to improve their processes. I also explained that lean thinking is the foundation for driving waste out of processes and improving the bottom line. With a knowing look my father’s response was, “So, it’s one of those weight-loss programs. By the way, you could stand to ‘lean’ a few pounds off yourself, son.” Obviously, my father was egging me on.
“Hey! We did that!” my mother suddenly chimed in. That surprising statement, coming from my mother, of all people, prompted me to ask her what she was talking about. She gladly explained.
“In 1941, when your father and I were juniors in high school, the US entered World War II. Your father and his brothers, as well as my brothers, all joined the Army and Navy. Your grandfather was working double shifts at the tank plant, since all the younger men had joined up. It was obvious that they needed help in the factories, because all of the skilled labor was gone. So, women like myself were encouraged to take jobs at the plants to build up the workforce. I became a material handler at the tank plant. I believe this was the first time that women actually worked on the factory floor. They trained us, and then had numerous follow-up sessions to solicit our input.
“When I heard you explaining to your father what it is you do all day, I had to speak up. Every day we got together as a team to discuss how to implement ways to better improve the tank-assembly process. We were encouraged to ask questions, and to challenge the current way of doing things. And [these are my mother’s own words here], we were always trying to identify waste in our process and eliminate it without sacrificing safety or quality. We were told to think about the overall process, and how our job duties impacted the process. I don’t know where the word lean comes from, because we never called it anything. We just were doing it every day so that we could get good tanks overseas. It was the right thing to do.”
This story reminds us that the quest to eliminate waste from our processes is nothing new. A first effort at enhancing efficiency through a division of labor was offered by Adam Smith in 1772. In the early 1900s, motion-study experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth focused on motion analysis and task redesign, which led to higher efficiencies and less waste in the manufacturing environment. The things that concerned Gilbreth more than anything, however, were the what and the why. The what is understanding everything about your job, and knowing how what you are doing impacts you. The why shows you the reason for doing the task, and provides insight into whether you should maintain how you are doing it, or change. It’s this human understanding that is critical to improving the process.
From our experience, we know that many companies attempt lean initiatives with limited success. Lean implementation often looks like a collection of lean tools such as 5S, kanban, and andon, without an understanding of the reasoning behind the tools. We know that for sustained lean implementation people must internalize lean, and change the way they think about what they do and why they do it, day in and day out.
As I reflect on my mother’s experience, it becomes obvious that, although lean manufacturing has evolved into a much more formal practice with standards development and an arsenal of lean tools in place, the power of sustainable waste elimination and process improvement will always rely upon the power of knowledge and the skills of the people doing the job. We sometimes forget that the waste of human capital is the first waste that we need to address. I wish I could put mom on video for people to see and understand the passion and pride she displayed when she shared her experience. In the end, it is not what you label your improvement initiative, be it Smart Manufacturing, Lean Manufacturing, The Road to Quality, etc. It is how you engage and motivate your workforce toward this goal that will make all the difference.
This article was first published in the June 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.