“Lean” management tools are used to eliminate waste in business processes to maximize profit. Under the Lean system, sources of waste are found in transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over processing, and defects. It is an engineer’s approach to scientifically fine-tuning each enterprise as a machine. The Toyota Production System (TPS) is the parent to the Lean and “six sigma” programs; “TPS reports” in the comedy movie Office Space are not a joke but based on a real management system!
Unfortunately, eliminating the various types of mechanical waste does not guarantee business success or process purity. The reason is that humans are not machines; inasmuch as business enterprises are social phenomena, there is much more to management than process efficiency.
As an example, take a busy steel parts manufacturing plant: there are many types of workers participating in a symphony. Technical experts like engineers, chemists, metallurgists monitor production and waste disposal. Equipment operators run the massive machines and drive forklifts to move manufacturing ingredients and finished products about the facility. Supply clerks are ordering, receiving, and storing parts and ingredients. Equipment maintenance technicians ensure longevity and performance of expensive equipment by testing and maintenance functions. In the office, account managers communicate with customers, accountants manage the books, personnel experts ensure compliance with safety and employment laws, and of course management maintains understanding of the big picture and ensures all participants are playing the same song. This plant is a flurry of activity that demands predictable and precise social relationships. The various tribes in this factory have found equilibrium under which they coexist and play their essential roles.
Let’s say that a new plasma steel cutting machine is purchased to expand the plant’s production portfolio. Under Lean management we must consider many mechanical factors to integrate the new equipment into the production process. Analyzing where the machine is physically placed proximate to other processes and power sources, calculating the fewest number of workers needed to operate and maintain it, ascertaining new ingredients are found at the best prices are all important mechanical considerations to avoid process waste.
Yet maximizing mechanical efficiency and minimizing costs will not be enough to ensure the new equipment improves the bottom line. The plant’s equipment are merely tools in a social endeavor of manufacturing new steel products. Several tasks considered mechanically “inefficient” will be necessary to succeed. Employees not directly operating the plasma cutter will need training to understand its capabilities and effects on the product line. Equipment operators will need practice to hone their skills, but also the latitude to experiment with existing products to expose synergies. New combinations of production teams should be tested to discover unanticipated benefits. It will take time and patience to find equilibrium again among the tribes.
Practicing Lean manufacturing will eliminate waste. But so-called “inefficient” functions like team-building and experimentation are necessary to realize new opportunities and discover new revenue sources.