UpFront: Common Sense and Lean
By Brian J. Hogan
Every now and then I hear someone say that lean manufacturing is the flavor of the month, and that what's really needed on the shop floor is just plain old common sense.
But common sense is really intuition derived from a mixture of theoretical knowledge and experience. A fifteen-year-old who has just gotten a driver's license doesn't understand that traveling at 70 mph on an icy highway isn't sensible; an experienced driver knows what ice does to an automobile's traction, and considers slowing down to be common sense.
In a manufacturing context, you would get rich by organizing production around Henry Ford's common-sense ideas. Rely upon my common sense for the same task, and your company will quickly become a candidate for bankruptcy.
Certain lean tools and principles may look like common sense to highly experienced manufacturing engineers. They don't necessarily look like that to new hires, or to machine operators.
If a company relies upon leadership by a few strong, experienced personalities, commonsense decision making can work very well for a long time. But subtract those personalities, and managers are likely to find themselves bereft of direction. Sound common sense isn't actually all that commonplace— and it can't be taught.
When championed by management and properly applied, lean pushes decisions about production down to the shop floor. In a lean system, a mistake on the floor, a defective part, or any other problem becomes an opportunity to improve the process. In a lean system, equipment is right-sized, and the shop floor is organized to produce in response to downstream signals. This approach minimizes WIP and inventory.
The commonsense ideas of an experienced manufacturing engineer may produce similar results, but those ideas are unique to an individual who leaves the plant from time to time, who may quit and take a different job, and who at some point will either retire or die. Lean, in a sense, never leaves the plant. If the entire staff has been trained in lean principles and tools (and that's the way it should be done), ideas for eliminating waste constantly originate on the floor, and are continuously applied to the production process.
In addition, for a person trained in lean, a typical front office or administrative setting is a target-rich environment, right up to the CEO's desk. But a manufacturing engineer's common sense is much less applicable to the front office environment.
Don't make the mistake of assuming that lean is an empty buzzword. The term "Lean" covers a range of approaches and techniques that are proven to work, can be taught to everyone in an organization, and can permanently change your company's culture.
This article was first published in the August 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.