Lean manufacturing starts with “buy in” at the shop-floor level, by individual workers. Those who do the work need to be fully invested in the process for it to succeed.

Lean Manufacturing’s Biggest Hidden Challenges

July 27, 2017
... from skeptical teammates and worried execs to the frustration of waiting for the results to emerge

Lean manufacturing is perhaps the most popular option for manufacturing operations seeking to improve performance, offering clear results and benefits that beat the competition and reduce time to market. Lean brings together aspects of waste management and factory-line optimization with a “people first” attitude, to streamline processes and cut the highest manufacturing costs of out of the equation. 

It sounds perfect, and it is perfect on paper, but Lean is rarely an easy process to implement. When operations adopt Lean manufacturing, several common (and avoidable) problems always appear, from skeptical teammates and worried executives to the general frustration of just giving the process time to work. 

Skeptical teams — Lean manufacturing starts with “buy in” at the shop-floor level, by individual workers. Those who do the work need to be fully invested in the process for it to succeed. Organizations often introduce Lean to the broad team all at once, leaving little opportunity for this buy-in to develop among each individual.

Avoiding this pitfall is one of the easier tasks in transitioning to Lean. To get started, pick one team made up of your best workers, and get them to buy into the new approach. In the meantime, everyone else should keep up the status quo. That one team will begin the transition, and will succeed, giving everyone else an example of what works. Then, individuals or whole teams will come into the Lean process on their own terms, fully invested and ready to contribute.

The C-suite expects results, fast … — Senior managers and executives frequently look to Lean as a well-known way to cut operating costs and reduce competitive losses. This overly positive view may induce them to question the results prematurely, without ever putting forward the commitment needed for the process to work. Too often, Lean is sold to the C-suite as a one-size-fits-all solution for production that delivers instant results – even though it requires real investments to see those effects.

Moving to a Lean manufacturing model requires building trust with the organization’s leadership, too. Up front, they must have clear and reasonable expectations about the time and money needed to see results, and the difficulty involved with changing a process. The normal indicators for organizational productivity will break while the team reorganizes and adapts; the expected returns will come over time.

… But struggles to support new investment — Executives also will be skeptical about the big investments in time or money that Lean requires, particularly those costs that affect lines making up the most revenue. This may lead the C-suite to become too involved in the transition, either micro-managing the process or forcing operations managers to shut down the change prematurely.

Share a map of the process up front, clearly pointing out when they may start to see the benefits of reduced waste and faster time to market alongside times when you will need to slow down the process. The executive team will appreciate the clear vision and treat the investment appropriately, from a distance. This will keep the project safe while your version of Lean grows and produces results – and at the same time elevating the operating managers’ role at the same time.

Sticking through the rough spots — The biggest failure in Lean comes when teams end the experiment prematurely. Lean takes more time than you may expect to get it right, which can lead you to think that the process is broken. The pattern is common: the team loses energy, leadership loses trust, and the transition ultimately fails.

The signs start early in the process – look for low spirits and little inspiration – but they do not mean that anything is wrong.

Lean manufacturing needs time to work well. Estimate at least six months to get to results if your team is local, and more time if you are managing multiple regions. Teams must have this time to relearn the work, build trust and grow before reliable production starts to take place.

As the cheerleader in the process, your role is to keep the team’s spirits high and allow them to fail and learn when needed. The worst mistake that organizations make is to give up early. Remember that the one characteristic that all successful Lean organizations share is that they stick through the process.

Steve Porter is the vice president of manufacturing for Grainger, a supplier of maintenance, repair and operating products (MRO), with operations across North America and in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Contact him at LinkedIn, or visit www.grainger.com/knowledge.

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