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If You Don’t Know What Lean Is, Would You Just Be Quiet?

Let me start by saying that I’m not a ‘lean’ expert. I’ve had the great privilege to meet or come to know some lean giants – people that not only know it, but have put it into practice, managed it, breathed it. I ain’t one of ’em. I’m a student – they’re the teachers.

You’d do well to follow them: @Lean_CEO; @LeanBlog; @Flinchbaugh; @MFGWaddell. I know what I do not know, and I defer to their experience and expertise in lean manufacturing.

But I’ve lived in and served manufacturing long enough to have learned some fundamental truths regarding what lean is, and what it isn’t. I consider myself a sort of Justice Potter Stewart when it comes to the definition of lean: “I cannot intelligibly define it, but I know it when I see it.”

This morning, I read an article called “BMW Chooses Flexibility Over Lean Manufacturing” that astonished me on how much it seemed to get wrong with regard to what lean is, what it isn’t, and how BMW defines their own processes and manufacturing model.

More to the point, my problem is that the article and BMW assert that lean and flexibility are a zero-sum game, that you have to pick one or the other. And that is complete hooey.

What it (the article) says:

“It (BMW) builds most of its vehicles with specific colours, features and options the way individual customers order them from a dealer. ‘Our processes are flexible enough to adjust to market or customer demand and efficient enough to maintain our cost competitiveness.'”

What it gets wrong: Lean is a mindset, a ‘lifestyle’ for business that drives out waste so as to be nimble, responsive and flexible enough to create value as it’s defined by the customer. What it just said is as lean as it gets.

What it says:

“What makes BMW different to other car companies across North America is that its production system is demand driven and flexible. ‘Demand is driven by paying customers and if someone does not order a car we do not build one,’ says (Rich) Morris (Vice President, assembly, BMW).”

What it gets wrong: First, there are those pesky customers again, defining production flow and investment (that IS lean). Secondly, this is where the article begins to confuse ‘flexible’ with ‘on-demand’ manufacturing. This is not a new concept – the web is rife with examples of companies thriving by creating products to the specific requirements of their customers. Starbucks. Build-a-Bear. And tailor-made-to-order drugs for individuals are coming, and have been talked about for years.

What it says:

“… neither the lean nor flexibility principles are perfect ideologies. The most flexible plants are not the most ‘lean,’ for instance in terms of the inventory of parts the plant has to keep handy.”

What it gets wrong: Oh, no … not the old “lean-is-cutting-costs” definition again. Please, just make this stop. To over-simplify the constant review of costs like inventory and consistent, holistic focus on customer value isn’t only not helpful, it’s dangerous because cutting costs based only on the company’s requirements can easily leave money on the table and drive away business. “The cost of everything, and the value of nothing …” Ugh.

What it says:

“On the flip side, the leanest plants that can build cars the fastest also need to become more flexible as customers are becoming increasingly demanding. Morris agrees. ‘The real battle is the race toward efficient flexibility,’ he says.”

What it gets wrong: Not much here, specifically – who could argue with this statement? But the perpetuation of the notion that ‘lean’ and ‘flexible’ are somehow mutually exclusive is preposterous to me. One should beget the other.

Look, my problem isn’t that BMW is looking to create an on-demand production model that obsesses on the customer. For heaven’s sake, we could use a lot more of that. And I don’t fault the author – she did a pretty good job of portraying the approach that BMW served up.

But I have a BIG problem with spreading misinformation about what lean is, and mistaking and mislabeling manufacturing strategies with an authority that clearly isn’t there. Feeding this kind of incorrect, incomplete & simplistic information to bean-counters or the C-suite is like giving a drunk a loaded Uzi.

If you’re beginning a lean journey or in the middle of one (and we’re ALWAYS in the middle of one, or should be), do yourself a favor and get accurate information from people that know what they’re talking about.

And if you’re thinking about writing or talking about lean, think carefully about sending someone off on a crap-shoot. If you don’t, you’re doing more harm than good.

AJ Sweatt
Website
6 Comments
  1. Great Article… I too am a student of lean, I have only been involved with lean since 1987. I agree with your sentiment that people try to differentiate Lean and Flexability.

    • Thanks, Lee. It must be tough and rewarding at once to get students with little practical experience to understand lean as a concept and journey. Do you have many companies in your area that give students exposure to their businesses?

  2. Nicely said. I’ve seen you on twitter and this is my first time on your blog. It’s a great looking design, BTW. Being a WordPress geek here, but what theme are you using? Or was this custom developed?

    • Thanks, Mark. I’m awfully flattered that you stopped by, much less to do a little readin’ & writin’. I’m very familiar with you, Jamie, Bill & Kevin from your virtual travels and sharing.

      Glad a fellow WPG likes the theme – it’s one that I found on ThemeForrest, from a young man in Spain. Very gifted and helpful fellow. I actually had to do very little touch up with it, aside from turning off some of the more ostentatious features he built into the original. So, I guess you could say it’s semi-custom. Oh, and it was inexpensive, too. 🙂

      Thanks again, man. Let me know if you ever need anything.

  3. I have structured our company, Bear Boring LLC, to be as ‘lean’ as it can possibly be – and that would well nigh onto impossible if it weren’t also flexible and attendant to customers’ needs.

    I think people who do not ‘know’ lean assume it is a lockstep type of ‘program’, rather than a philosophy. The need to compartmentalize, especially in a business environment, is still prevalent. Perhaps that will change, as we continue to evolve and reinvent ourselves in manufacturing.

    Great article – love the dissection!

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