Lean is a Dream

I was talking to Greg Knight of AMT Machine Systems (ServoCam), whose company adapts old school cam Brown & Sharpes into 21st century CNC hybrids. He was lamenting the difficulty he has selling his product to job shop owners who have no visibility of work from one month to the next. The days of consistent long-running contracts seem to have vanished like untaxed cigarettes.

In the used machinery business, and I’m guessing also in the new machinery business, we live with future blindness. Projections are difficult, which drives accountants and bankers mad, but they probably deserve it. Business people crave the myth of being in control. They think they deserve an accurate vision of the future. And now we must live with the blank order sheet and wait for the sketchy buyers to call or email their requests for parts in a week. “Sure,” you say obediently, and immediately order material for next day delivery. Welcome to the new normal.

Every time I proclaim that I do not pray at the “Temple of Lean” I am chastised as a manufacturing heretic. But in a sloppy, erratic, fog shrouded world, “lean” is a dream lived fully only in the predictable world of government contracts, lubricated by friendly politicians from “safe districts,” a rarity in our blindfolded world.

Question: Is lean manufacturing impractical for most job shops in today’s economy?


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10 thoughts on “Lean is a Dream

  1. Greg Sweet

    I don’t remember where I heard it (maybe here!) but the “dirty little secret” of lean is that it’s really just a way for companies with leverage (i.e. big customers) to push their inventory down to companies without leverage (smaller suppliers.) Pity the company that gets squeezed by lean – too small to say “no” to their customers and too small to force their suppliers to say “yes” to lean.

  2. Ted Carter

    There is no way to discount the loss of versatility in a Lean manufacturing enviroment. There are practical concepts that do and should apply but to adopt the philosophy on a one size fits all basis is naive at best.

  3. Rick Tillery

    In a typical job shop, such as mine, versatility is the name of the game. And versatility does not come cheap. Being lean in a bad economy does no good without consistant orders. When a customer orders 30 pieces then wants to split the delivery into 10 pcs. per month everyother month, well that’s about as lean as it gets!

  4. Ralph Jones

    The problem with LEAN manufacturing is that the companies that practice this method are not in fact “manufacturers”, they are merely assembling manufactured components into finished products. That is not manufacturing, that is assembly. As stated above, this “one-size fits all” approach may work for companies that perform the same type of “manufacturing”, or, assembly, but has no place in “manufacturing”. “LEAN manufacturing” is not only impractical in today’s economy, but it is impractical in it’s very essence. Perhaps the terminology should be changed to “Lean Assembly”. Aside from agreeing with the previous posts, I could point out several instances where “lean” is only lean if you are the purchaser, not the supplier. From a supplier’s standpoint, “lean” is more of a nightmare than a dream. Imagine if Walmart tried to tell its Chinese suppliers to implement “lean manufacturing” – your DVD player would cost a lot more than $35.00. Another example of why American manufacturing is all but non-existent – we can’t compete when our customers tell us how to run our business.

  5. Chuck Erickson

    I have always tried to operate according to the principles of Lean Manufacturing. Part of the lure to the customer is a custom made, quantity of one part. This demands that setup times approach zero. In my business that means whole sets of hard tooling, and there are few customers willing to pony up the thousands of dollars necessary. I agree with Mr. Jones, assembly is not the same as manufacturing.

  6. Greg Knight

    I have seen some excellent results at job shops of lean manufacturing. Micron Manufacturing and Vanamatic immediately come to mind. This has been a success at these companies because of top down dedication to the principles of lean. However, I do agree with Ted, that lean is not always a ‘one size fits all’ proposition.

    If we take lean to mean simply eliminating waste, then we can apply lean principles, not always in specifics, but in general processes. The way you receive, store, and retrieve material. How you organize tooling. And don’t forget the office, many people I have talked to found less standardization in the office processes than in the shop!

    Streamlining and standardizing setup, for instance, can apply accross all jobs, while the specfics may vary job to job. There is only one ‘best’ process, and whatever that is for your shop you should be able to agree to that process so that all your setup personnel are approaching a setup in the same way. It takes a little work, but if you can reduce setup time by 75% (and yes, it can be done) then that certainly increases the versatility of your shop. You have reduced your part cost and opened more machine time.

    I do believe that eliminating waste from processes is just common sense, and we all too often seem ‘too busy’ to bother with it. And that can be done by job shops.

    Now to address the ‘new normal’ that Lloyd referred to in his message. If I were a customer and you would routinely deliver to me in a two week window, why would I ever order ahead of that? Reduces my risk/cost/inventory if I can receive parts and put them immediately into assembly and ship the result. Now, there is an advantage to that. Orders placed on that basis will not come from accross the pond!

  7. Daniel

    The issue is whether or not ‘lean’ is appropriate or practical for a job shop, but rather the issue is that, what people think is ‘lean’, is not really what the Toyota Production System represents. The term ‘lean’ originated with the study related to ‘The Machine That Changed the World’, published about 20 years ago. Through that study/book and also dozens of other interpretations of Toyota and Japanese manufacturing, a distorted view emerged. I can remember, early on, when the success of Japanese manufacturing (does anyone else remember, ‘If Japan Can, Why Can’t We’?) was almost entirely attrributed to the use of statistical process control. Later, it became ‘zero inventory’ and ‘just-in-time’. Interestingly, you can go through Toyota’s plants and plants using Toyota supplier support, and you will see that there is always more than ‘zero’ inventory. And we are at that point even today, with a misunderstanding of ‘lean’ and iits implementation; although I think now there are some more knowledgeable people doing the interpreting. Long story short, the Toyota Production System or ‘lean’ is very applicable in job shops and hospitals, and even schools and government. It isn’t about speed, although that is a result when it is applied to manufacturing processes. It IS about process understanding and improvement. Read the latest from Mike Rother, Steven Spear, Pascal Dennis, or John Shook to get a better understanding of what ‘lean’ really means. Mr. Spear even shows the significance of ‘process’ to the U.S. nuclear submarine program. Better yet, see how lean is being implemented in hospitals (‘The Pittsburgh Way to Lean Healthcare’) and then think how it could fit into the job shop.

  8. Brian "Dwight" Hoff

    Lloyd and TMW do a fantastic job at allowing feedback to his stories and editorials. Bravo. Several times I’ve taken advantage to debate his view on this topic. I think this time I’ll just say “Who am I to disagree with your opinion”. Perhaps competitors should not pursue lean. 😉

  9. Dan Vermeesch

    Greg, thanks for the honorary mention. Daniel, very well said. I don’t know who you are but I can tell that you “get it” when it comes to lean. Brian Hoff, congratulations on your restraint. Lloyd, thanks for this format, it always creates quite a buzz around here. To everyone else, especially the non-believers, of course lean is not a one-size-fits-all tool. The shops that can take the concepts of lean, and translate them into a culture of creativity, waste reduction, teamwork and agility are the lean winners in the end, in my humble opinion. For instance, the Shingo site examiners documented that we did not demonstrate particularly good use of the lean tools, but that ALL of our employees were engaged in the lean philosophy. For a guy who treats the tools with particular irreverence I couldn’t have asked for a greater compliment. To the shops that reject the entire philosophy… well, perhaps you already do great things at your company without flying the lean flag. After all, the tenets of lean are all simply based on common sense. There is no magic to it. I have to imagine, though, that some on the sidelines have to notice the momentum the philosophy is building. Just the fact that Lloyd writes about it with increasing frequency is evidence of that, but more so are some of the examples Daniel cited, particularly in the health industry. Folks, if hospitals can dramatically improve service, quality of care and save lives using the lean philosophy how could it not help in your business? I know, I know, it’s time for me to go drink more Kool-Aid.

  10. Jeff Pagano

    Lean is really nothing more than some procedural steps to eliminate waste, and morme effectively run your business. To say that it “does not work” in any environment is not understanding the concept at all. Lean is always relative and based on the elements of your environment under your control. I really agree with Dan, you really need to work at it and it pays dividends. It is not a magic cure all for otherwise poorly run businesses.


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