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SME Speaks: Riding the Lean Tornado





By Christopher Couch, PhD
Body Weld Manager
Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky
Georgetown, KY 


Staying competitive in manufacturing can be a thankless pursuit. Fail and you face an unceremonious exit. Succeed, and you merely get to stay--until the next round.

Much has been written about the best ways to become and remain competitive, and much of that material focuses on the application of lean manufacturing principles as developed and practiced by Toyota. Toyota has been a lean benchmark for more than 60 years because we consistently apply lean tools, techniques, and philosophies at all of our factories worldwide. As a result, our efforts yield consistent results as measured by profits, quality, workplace safety, and environmental performance. Lean is part of our culture, part of our DNA. It helps us sustain our competitive advantage.

Still, being lean is not a sufficient condition for success in today's business environment. If it were, many more companies would be transformed into world-beaters--competitors in preeminent positions--after implementing kanban production control, intelligent automation, and just-in-time supply chain techniques.

Companies fail when they try to "get some of that lean" by adopting only the tools of lean production, and mistaking them for the essence of this manufacturing philosophy. When this occurs, policies and software are implemented without concern for much-needed cultural change on the factory floor.

Contrast this with the atmosphere at Toyota, where employees feel that lean production is our company DNA, the way we carry out all aspects of our jobs. While Toyota's lean toolkit evolves over time, its underlying business philosophy does not.

That is not to say we never struggle. Lean can fail when companies neglect to manage their forward-moving direction. Becoming, or staying, lean is simply a state of readiness, like a runner being prepared to race. Healthy firms also require a dynamic component--a forward motion or a velocity vector.

In the spirit of both Toyota's new truck plant (currently under construction in San Antonio, TX) and my own background as a native of Texas, allow me to illustrate using a particularly Texan metaphor.

Pecos Bill, the mythical and legendary creator of rodeo, was reputedly able to ride any sort of beast. In search of a challenge, he went to Kansas looking for a tornado. Finding the biggest, meanest twister available, Pecos Bill caught the cyclone with a lasso and rode it all the way back to Texas.

Managing foward progress in a lean production environment is like riding a tornado. With constant action, the lean tornado sucks waste and inefficiency out of the factory floor, and then it must move. Tornadoes never stay in one place; they progress across the landscape, occasionally demonstrating the ability to skip and jump several miles ahead.

To remain competitive, even the leanest manufacturing companies must demonstrate similar forward motion. Business conditions change. The industry landscape evolves. Performance targets must be continually revised, and market opportunities must be addressed. As lean as your organization may be today, it must be leaner tomorrow, or competitors will pass you by.

Managers at the most successful manufacturing operations within Toyota--whether located in Japan, North America, or elsewhere--do four things better than their peers as they attempt to ride the lean tornado. They:

  • Stay paranoid: Know your competition using competitive intelligence and rigorous benchmarking. If necessary, benchmark outside your industry to identify best practices in relevant functions. And most importantly, use this knowledge to drive your strategic planning and target-setting processes. This is not merely a role for central corporate staff; at Toyota, production-line supervisors are frequently empowered to travel internationally, benchmark competitors, and develop their own vision and targets.       
  • Stay focused: The annual plans of Toyota's manufacturing organizations are highly consistent from year to year. Manufacturing invariably focuses on cost, quality, worker safety, and environmental performance. Key performance indicators (KPIs) are constructed around these four dimensions. Specific activities are periodically created and dissolved, but KPIs are virtually static (although numerical targets become more stringent each year). This reflects a high degree of discipline in the strategic planning process. Focus is also evident in the rigorous application of standardized work and formal problem-solving methodologies, both on the factory floor and in the office workplace.       
  • Unleash the people: The best organizations within Toyota unleash the power of each employee for continuous improvement. They do so by emphasizing process first and results second. Employees can receive negative reviews by producing strong results via unsustainable or unrepeatable methods. Conversely, employees can receive positive reviews despite mediocre results if the processes they create are sound and exhibit continuous improvement. While results are important for any business, a healthy bias towards processes can foster an environment of employee engagement and constructive risk-taking.       
  • Develop managers accordingly: The goal is to develop managers in whom the three items above are second nature. Sometimes Toyota accomplishes this by creating formal human-resource development systems. More often this is accomplished by cultivating senior managers and mentors who can develop other managers with this DNA.

These four items may seem obvious and simplistic. However, in my experience with Toyota in Japan and North America, the power comes from their consistent application year after year.

Toyota has decades of experience implementing lean production techniques. Pecos Bill would be proud--our lean tornado is big and mean. However, your lean tornado does not have to be large before you lasso it and ride. You can apply the four principles above whether you are a lean production tenderfoot or seasoned cowhand.

Finally, the application does not have to be top-down. These items can be practiced at almost any level of management, from line supervisor to senior executive. If the lean tornado is ridden well, manufacturing organizations will have a difficult time "running off into cactus" from a competitive standpoint. And you may find that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.   

Strap on your boots and spurs, pardner. It's time to saddle up and ride.



Job Shops: Apply Lean Tools Quickly

On June 12, manufacturing professionals throughout the nation will join together in a virtual seminar on "Lean and Beyond for the Small Shop--Tools for Survival and Profitability," led by SME member and best-selling author Gary Conner. Using advanced virtual conferencing technologies, participants will join in from their homes, offices, and conference rooms, and from the 2004 SME Annual Meeting held that week in Cincinnati, OH.

During the session, Conner--author of Lean Manufacturing for the Small Shop--will discuss the proven steps a small or medium-sized job shop can take in order to implement the lean approach--without expensive consulting fees. An archive of the video presentation and virtual session is available from SME. Contact the SME Resource Center at (800) 733-4763 (US only) or (313) 271-1500, Ext. 4500, to request access today.


This article was first published in the June 2004 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 6/1/2004

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