3 Questions to Dr. Jeffrey Liker

Lean Management

We often hear that lean is a fundamentally different approach, but what does this really mean?  

On the surface it seems simple enough. One pillar is just-in-time (JIT) which means attempt to flow value in a one-piece-flow without interruption through various stages until it gives the customer what they want, when they want it, in the amount they want. The second pillar is Jidoka which has to do with stopping when there is an out of standard condition and working to quickly solve the problem. JIT deals with flow. Jidoka deals with variation. But the third critical piece is in the center of the house the people who run the process and car react with thoughtful analysis of the problem and creative solutions to continually improve toward a new level of performance. Toyota puts enormous resources into developing people to think and act scientifically continually improving toward challenging goals.  

Dr. Jeffrey Liker  

Professor emeritus, Industrial and Operations Engineering

University of Michigan

How lean are companies in the USA? Is lean thinking already sufficiently widespread in the US economy? 

Unfortunately, lean is one of many management fads that become programs to solve some particular short-term problem – often related to cost and efficiency. There are plenty of internal and external “experts” eager to sell their pet approaches to lean. Usually these involve vigorously applying the tools of lean to operate on the people and processes, rather than provide enabling tools and coaching people to be better thinkers and problem solvers. Thus, the tools are there but what is missing is the culture and leadership to make the system work toward achieving breakthrough goals. Only a minority have incorporated lean into their operating philosophy and worked to continually leran and develop for 10-20 years and they are getting the real benefits. 

What should manufacturing companies in the USA take to heart, if they want to become excellent? 

They should consider that whatever their processes and approach to excellent performance, even with largely automated processes run by computers, people are still at the center to keep the system running at a high level and improve its performance.  There are always many unanticipated problems. These problems need to be solved in an adaptive way by people who really understand the equipment and processes. That could be highly trained maintenance people or operators on the floor. Generally, this works best when teams of people with different knowledge have a degree of responsibility and autonomy to keep operations running and continually improve them. 

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