Lean Tools are a Means, Never an End

One of the most common and most difficult to eradicate beliefs is that “Lean” is just a bunch of analytical tools and methods. By knowing and applying them, organizations often believe they will automatically — and forever more — increase their profitability. If this were the case, why are so many companies, institutions and agencies that have applied Lean tools not experiencing sustainable differences? Why is it that in many instances organizations, once started down the road of Continuous Improvement (with varying degrees of success for sure), break away and refocus on other initiatives the moment a new CEO or plant supervisor comes onboard? Are the tools not working? Is it just another consultant’s ruse, where the theory sounds great but doesn’t work in real life? Or, are the means and methods not being used properly?

Can Lean Tools (by Themselves) Transform a Business?

A tool is any physical item that can be used (by someone) to achieve a goal. So in essence, a tool does not do anything by itself. Someone must use a tool to perform (or not), and the correct use of that tool determines success or failure.

Computers, the Internet and mobile phones are all great inventions from the last century. However, given this definition, they are basically just tools — they are a means to an end and should be used as such. Nevertheless, in today’s times it is easy to find examples of where tools are being treated as an end more often than not. For instance, in manufacturing environments production schedules are created by ERP or MRP systems. Yet, these systems depend entirely on accurate data input such as correct inventory levels, material locations, scrap levels, (reported vs. actual), etc. And, as we all know, production cycle times never vary (ha!). All these elements are heavily influenced by people’s behavior where work discipline is translated into the accuracy or inaccuracy of the ERP / MRP tool. But in real life, we seldom follow the exact schedule generated by the computer. Why is this? The computer rarely makes mistakes. It’s because we — people — do not use the tool properly and consistently. We don’t give the tool what it needs which is accurate data and inputs. We automatically assume the computer has considered all the variables.

Proper Tool, Wrong Attitude?

In a recent visit to an assembly plant for window regulators, I noticed that throughout the plant supermarkets had been installed. Separate safety stocks and a constant milk run train ensured each cell was supplied with materials. At one point the milk run operator arrived at the supermarket to find it empty of a specific part. Not to worry, he immediately went to the safety stock, collected the parts and made the necessary adjustments so that the cell could continue working. So yes, the tools (e.g., inventory control, replenishment and kanban, etc.) were working. Yet, the operation was down for parts? The failure here is that the operator did not report the fact that the supermarket was empty, which would enable preventative countermeasures. As it turned out, the underlying problem was a combination of factors: parts placed in the wrong location caused by an overly complicated visual management system and an operator who, at the end of his shift, dumped the parts somewhere in his hurry to go home.

Be Consistent

In another assembly plant, a need was identified to increase the quality output of a specific cell. Boundary samples, error proofing sensors and devices were installed, along with standard work methods and detailed visual job instructions, all with great success. However, several months later, the focus of management changed. They believed quality was now a given because all the “tools” were in place. They chose to revert back to the old, well-proven method of shouting to demonstrate the new priority and increase output of the production line “any way you can.” The operators responded as predicted, and the output numbers from the cell increased. Over time, the focus on quality checks in the cell became more relaxed. Soon enough, scrap numbers began going through the roof. As it turned out, the operators had found a way to circumvent the sensors and boundary samples because they felt a higher productivity goal was being served.

Only the Whole Package Succeeds

In both cases, the tools worked and ensured short-term success, but the system failed in the long-run because the companies did not succeed in changing the behavior and mindset of all the process stakeholders. The organization did not change its values and instill process discipline to follow the structure and system that comes with the tools.

It’s important to remember the definition of a tool: any physical item that can be used (by someone) to achieve a goal. Success comes from selecting the right tool and determining how someone must use it. It is a means and never an end!

Lean tools are logical, easy to understand, widely applicable and, in most cases, simple common sense. The important thing to remember is that if we do not use them diligently, in a structured manner and adjust our own behavior, the tools alone will never achieve sustainable improvements.

Read about how we helped a leading industrial equipment manufacturer appropriately leverage Lean tools inside of a comprehensive Continuous Improvement approach. Click here to download Kaufman Global’s Case Study: Transforming Operations into a Strategic Competitive Advantage.