When I started my career in manufacturing lean was what I was at 150 lbs. and just-in-time was when I rolled into the drive as my wife was finishing dinner preparations. But I tried hard to do many of the things that Lean (or the Toyota Production System) systemized later or that just-in-time scheduling has done with automobile assembly. Ever try to order parts to minimize inventory when the lead time is 36 weeks and the production schedule is solid for only two weeks out? Anyway, to me it was just common sense and good management.

Systemized tools such as Lean, Six Sigma and the like have done much toward improving the efficiency, effectiveness (two different things–see Drucker) and profitability of manufacturing. My belief in the principles are what has led to my following the Evolving Excellence blog. Bill and Kevin have many insights on the news from manufacturing.

Perhaps no company epitomized the best principles of manufacturing years ago than Motorola. In the mid- to late- 80s it was doing some really cool stuff. They could also design products well.

Look what’s happened to it–it no longer exists. It imploded and has divided into two parts or MOT–>MSI + MMI (Motorola Solutions and Motorola Mobility. Bill Wadell remembers the history of the great manufacturing company and lays the blame firmly where it belongs–poor top management and leadership.

See for example: “Motorola had all of the traditional accounting data that called inventory an asset and classified cycle time compression as a negative, and they had all of the typical labor-centric performance metrics. Bob Galvin simply ignored them, symbolically relegating financial discussion to the end of the staff meetings, rather than the beginning where they had always been. He put quality discussions first. And Mot had a traditional, functional, command and control organizational structure. Again, Galvin ignored it, pushing decision making down and empowering lower level people by the force of his position and personality. Big mistake – he should have changed the systems, metrics and structure. Chris Galvin took over without the benefit of his father’s deep institutional knowledge and the force of convictions that such knowledge enables. So from 1993 on, Motorola inevitably and inexorably reverted back to its former self as decision making was driven more and more by the traditional financial inputs and the advice of Galvin’s siloed senior staff.”

The EE writers are often negative and somewhat cynical about modern manufacturing, but they also can point out people doing it right. Here’s a story about a manufacturer of pianos in Estonia that offers great value–not the cheapest price–as the path to success.

“The story has repeated itself many times recently, and will continue to do so over and over. Lean manufacturing is not about cost cutting – it is about eliminating waste – costs that do not create value for customers. The lean producer is not the one who spends the least, but the one with the highest percentage of spending going to value creation. Estonia pianos are cheaper than Steinways, more expensive than Chinese made – they succeed because they are a better value for the price than either.”

And here is another positive story from Kevin Meyer. He recently took a trip to Southeast Asia and experienced tremendous service at a low price on Bangkok Airways. Read his account of the service and think of the kind of management that pays careful attention to details and how people work. It scripts and then trains people impeccably. And offers tremendous value for the price. Could you do the same at your company?

“He then pointed out the lounge that every passenger could use. Yes you read that right – they have a nice dedicated lounge, perhaps not as plush as a Red Carpet Club, but still with free drinks, snacks, nice ambiance, and entertainment – for everyone. Keep in mind their prices are half of their competition.

“About a half hour before the flight was to leave we went to the gate expecting to start the boarding process. No plane, quite a few people waiting. Here we go… the reason they’re cheap. 25 minutes prior… 20, 15. Aha – the plane! Off come the previous passengers, then the doors open and we’re ushered on. Not by section or row – a free for all. We’ll be lucky to get out of there in an hour.

But no. In 10 minutes we were all boarded, settled in, and the plane left the gate 5 minutes early. Not just any plane – a fairly new, spotless, brightly-colored, A320.

Bill Waddell points to an article in The Atlantic Monthly about Lean where the writer calls Lean “management by stress.” He rebuts the article a little, but I’ll add a little. First, to implement Lean in a way that works, there is a trust and implicit (or explicit) agreement that workers helping improve processes will not lose their jobs in that process. Next, I found out early in my career just as managers are discovering every day that involving front line workers in discussions about the best way to do things is a winning formula.

Too many managers and consultants never worked. I’ve had a drill and saw and whatever else and used to make everything our department manufactured. I worked with the guys (few women in those days, remember I’m old), talked with them, watched them and listened to them. With few exceptions they were always thinking about ways to do things better. When I was a quality manager, I found that almost all workers thought about how to make a quality product that they could have pride in. Involving workers in the improvement process is not management by stress. It’s common sense.

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