Have we missed something with Lean? 

Companies where the Lean approach has produced the most remarkable effects all have one thing in common, the Lean implementation is a means to serve a motivating vision of their future not an objective itself. 


Who, in the industrial world, can afford the luxury today to ignore the Lean approach, questioned Usine Nouvelle (French industrial press magazine) in January 2009. Originated in the automotive industry  by Toyota in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Lean methodology aims at optimizing processes by reducing the sources of inefficiency and wastes. It is applicable to all industry sectors (including pharmaceutical or agri-food) and to all activities (production, servcie organizations, support functions). Acclaimed during times of growth, this approach is today questioned in thel ight of the economic crisis. The question is less to know if the approach is still applicable in a crisis context than to know if the adaptations are unquestionably required.

 

Do not avoid the problem

In a growing market, as we experienced until 2008, Lean seems perfectly consistent. The increase in the activity absorbs progressively the productivity gains, whether they concern production or other functions.

The situation is different in a crisis context, characterized by stagnation or even acitvity decline. First, companies avoided the problem, in some ways,  by affecting productivity gains realized by reducing costs. Thus, they could maintain their profitability in a tighter market. In some cases, the objective of reducing costs has become the main motivation in Lean implementation, if not the only one. It is a short term perspective, immediat-results oriented, too often resulting in downsizing.

 

A win-win principle

Finally, companies involved in a Lean implementation, today face a dead-end.  For most of them,  performance gains are based on production teams' involvement. Every one, at his/her level, and this is one of the founding principle of Lean, should contribute to the production overall improvement thanks to his/her suggestions and actions.

For instance, within Toyota, each employee makes approximatively one suggestion per month, thus taking part to the company continuous improvement process. In order for such a system to succeed, each contributor must find some benefits in it, in terms of stability or positive evolution in his/her professional situation. Lean methods are based on a win-win principle. And this is precisely this balance which is questioned by the downsizing possibility, perceived like a sanction.

 

Change without changing

Not only this balance is essential to maintain a good social climate within the company, but questioning it also affects one of the founding values, common to all kind of enterprises, no matter its sector of activity or size : its willingness to progress.  When Lean is used to reduce costs and manpower, the whole company mechanically adopts a defensive attitude, comparable to the beleaguered in numerical inferiority. It is then no longer about going forward but rather about surviving. Implementing Lean solely to reduce costs leads to a paradoxical position : to change without changing. Productivity gains are used to keep the business as it is, producing the same quantities with lower manpower. Practices are there but the objective and the real meaning are lost.

 

A Lean "body" is a marathon body

If this phenomenon were limited to French companies, we could think it is because of an erroneous translation of the word Lean. Lean is not a synonym of meager, it means "no frills", like the body of a marathon runner.  It should absolutely not be a malnourished body, fearing for its future.   

A project that makes everyone willing to participate

Because it is the result of a continuous improvement process in all compartments of a company (workshops, support functions, R&D, sales, management), the implementation of Lean cannot be seen as complete with only short term objectives. Lean implementation should lean on a long term and credible strategy aimed at absorbing productivity gains with new conquired markets, boosted sales, a quality-increased service, etc... The key word is prospects! The idea is to draw, at the company-wide level, a perspective to absorb productivity gains in a way that do not require donwsizing. A credible and mobilising project is required. 

 

Changing the company

This kind of perspective can only be supported by an ambitious and long term industrial project (for one or more decades), that would protect the company from market volatility. Serving this project, Lean approach must naturally be extended beyond its traditional application fiels, the production workshops. All stakeholders have to be involved in the search for productivity gains, good practices identification and innovating ideas. Lean implementation will produce more positive effects if it serves a credible, motivating and shared vision of the future. Too often, we forget that the "Toyota model" is a strong-growth model and this is the reason why all employees are willing to contribute

 

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