Lean manufacturing: not a panacea

March 22, 2009

Not long ago, I attended a meeting of the local APICS chapter at which managers from a manufacturer of dental equipment described the process they used to obtain outstanding cost savings by  implementing  “lean manufacturing” techniques.

Shortly thereafter, during a visit to my dentist–who had recently purchased new equipment from that company–I discovered that there was a major flaw in their new dental chair– absolutely no ability to adjust part of the chair for people of varying heights–a rather major oversight, the hygienist observed.

So….implementing “lean” techniques may have reduced production cost, but it failed to meet the needs of the customer.

Clearly, my dentist purchased the piece of equipment anyway, but, surely, the next time, he will be more careful to check to see that basic necessary features are in place.  In the meantime, he may tell his colleagues who may be contemplating equipment purchases about the design defect…

So..”lean” is not a panacea.  There is still no substitute for common sense.

3 Responses to “Lean manufacturing: not a panacea”

  1. April 15, 2009

    I certainly agree that Lean is not a silver bullet. Furthermore, with the different degrees of lean implementation in a variety of industries, these initiatives have been devalued. Having implemented a number of lean processes in different environments, I would say that these concepts can be extremely effective when seeking higher productivity, better communication, and a higher degree of commitment from different functional areas. After all, one of the goals of lean is to increase value for the customer and the organization. However, designing a product with the customer’s needs in mind is different than manufacturing a product with customer’s value in mind. Companies like Toyota have had great success using lean concepts to be close to the customer, but it certainly this is more the exception rather than the rule.

  2. May 11, 2009

    I agree that “lean manufacturing” is not a panacea. It must be part of a comprehensive company-wide commitment to “lean thinking” and the use of “lean tools” to build a “lean organization.” One of the tools of a comprehensive lean implementation is Quality Function Deployment (QFD), a technique specifically designed to draw “the voice of the customer” into product design and development processes.

    The three fundamental pillars of lean practice are (1)cost, (2)quality, and (3)delivery (on-time). The quality pillar includes the practice of QFD, which aims to design products that assure customer satisfaction and value the first time, every time. The QFD framework can be used for translating actual customer statements and needs (“the voice of the customer”) into actions and designs to build and deliver a quality product.

    The “House of Quality” is a collection of several deployment hierarchies. It has the form of a table that connects dots between the Voice of the Customer and the Voice of the Engineer. The House of Quality is used by multidisciplinary teams to translate a set of customer requirements, using market research and benchmarking data, into an apporpriate number of prioritized engineering targets to be met by a new product design.

    The dental equipment manufacturer’s mistake was to not recognize that implementing half-measures rather than viewing “lean manufacturing” as merely part of a more comprehensive process is ultimately self-defeating.

    “Lean” is neither a panacea nor a silver bullet, any more than Total Quality Management, Six Sigma or other operations management practices (philosophies). Implementation of any operations management philosophy requires leadership, discipline and long-term commitment from top to bottom within an organization. Without executive leadership and long-term commitment to organizational learning and transformation, every attempt to implement a comprehensive management system is likely to fall well short of expectations and be written off as yet another passing management fad that was mistakenly regarded as a panacea.

  3. June 14, 2009

    Great post! I’ll subscribe right now wth my feedreader software!

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