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I have three clients who are in the process of putting lean manufacturing programs in their companies.  The truth was when they were talking about lean I had no idea what they meant.

After listening to them talk about lean I decided I better learn what lean is.  The way I learn is to read and I’ve now read five books about lean and am just beginning to understand why they’re so excited about their lean programs.

I came to find out that Lean is really the Toyota Production System.  It’s how Toyota does business and many including key people at Toyota claim being lean is what has allowed Toyota to have outstanding results for a very long time.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the purpose of lean is to take raw materials and turn them into finished materials as quickly as possible.  It’s about taking waste out of every operation in the company.

Lean requires a complete cultural change.  In many organizations command and control comes from the top of the organization.  In a lean organization much information flows from the factory floor. 

I believe lean is really about recognizing the expertise of the people doing the job.  At Dana Corporation, a major US lean company, they have a saying that each employee is the expert in the 25 square feet around them. 

When I had my vending company we had a pillar that was a lean statement: You are the expert at your job.  Recognizing expertise and expecting individual responsibility is unusual in many companies.  In a lean company is what’s normal and expected.

Lean is a combination of many strategies that have come before.  Lean didn’t start yesterday.  Toyota has been working on lean strategies for over fifty years.  Some business processes I clearly recognized and have been using for years.  Among them are:

  • W. Edward Deming’s quality control methods.
  • Using the theory of constraints.
  • Having open book management.
  • Recognizing employees as experts at their jobs.
  • Using suggestion systems where suggestions are analyzed and implemented effectively and efficiently.
  • Organizing work where there is little waste between functions.
  • Using just in time deliveries of products.

Lean takes a long time to implement.  The more I read and learn about lean the more I’m convinced all American business needs to adopt this model of doing business.  Those businesses that do adopt lean in totality are often richly rewarded for their efforts.

The problem with doing a lean installation is that it takes a long time for lean to become a reality.  Changing a culture is not something that’s done easily or quickly.  Installing dozens of different business strategies takes time.

A fast lean installation will take upwards of five years before a company can truly say they have a lean operation.  My question is, do American businesses and business owners have the patience to go through this process?

I believe that those who do will be very hard to compete with.  Many of us would like nothing better to build a giant moat around our company that protects us.  The lean moat is a great one, but one that takes time to build.

Josh Patrick

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