Selling Old-Timers on Lean in Not-So-Lean Times

The other day, I was consulting with a customer who was designated as his company’s “go-to guy” for implementing lean in their shop.  He wasn’t entirely convinced with the move, questioning, since his company has been doing well for the past 3 decades, why would they need to fix something that isn’t broken?  I asked him how many people work in his warehouse–he said fifteen.  I then asked him if he thought that, by reducing its inventory, his company would save money on warehouse personnel man-hours, storing inventory and materials, and possibly increase the efficiency of his shop.

As a guy who rose up in the ranks from sweeping floors to millwright to a management position, he knew everyone who works in the place.  And he couldn’t answer my questions without the bias of workman loyalty.  By becoming lean, many companies no longer need some of the positions filled that traditionally required many employees.  Like a warehouse.  If you only need one or two guys running each shift instead of three or even five, it might make a tighter ship, but obviously a leaner, more efficient one.  And it might mean layoffs.

This makes it a hard sell sometimes with ingrained employees.  They know it will mean less workers, and those workers are often friends and even family.

And this isn’t the only thing that can make lean hard to sell.  Sometimes the idea of keeping low inventory can have disastrous results.  As I was deliberating this blog entry, I came across an article by Barbara Jorgensen, titled “The Limits of Lean” at EBNonline.

In it, she explains how lean thinking is declining to some extent because of supply chain difficulties in certain industries–in her example, she cites how the Japan tsunami and heavy flooding in Thailand crippled some of the supply chain for lean operations in the electronics and computer industries, worldwide.  She noted how keeping a very low inventory in these cases created a bad situation for the companies that produce the consumer end-product because, for example, if a laptop requires a hard disk drive from flood-ravaged Thailand, they can’t provide enough to go around.  This results higher prices for products at best – or no products at all.

I have to agree with Ms. Jorgensen in her assessment that industry is moving toward a “middle ground somewhere between lean and gluttony.”  Everything, in moderation seems to ring true here as well. While JIT lean principles keep waste to a minimum, it’s sometime more prudent to “keep some grain in the silos,” in case of hard times.

In the case of the client mentioned at the beginning of this post, it certainly presents a challenge when trying to convince folks who may believe the misconception that lean means layoffs.  All I can do is offer our educational materials, and hope they will help him to understand that this “lean thing” isn’t a trend without merit, but a complex, multi-tiered system that can benefit most businesses in one way or another.  It’s what took Toyota all the way past some of the stiffest competition in the world.

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