The Promise and the Pitfalls of Lean Manufacturing

“My Team hates Lean”. These were the first words on the topic I heard from my 2nd Shift Manager when I broached a process improvement strategy. I was working at one of the largest manufacturers in the world at the time, Titan of the Manufacturing industry, one of the companies that created and shaped Lean in the first place. He and his team hated Lean, and to him, that settled the issue.

Before we move forward, I need to put a disclaimer here. I own and operate a company called Americas 21st, a company that has specialized in Single Piece Flow and Lean Manufacturing in the Sewn Goods Industry for 30 years. I am a Lean Production Engineer; I am not a neutral party here. I have a deep stake in this issue, and I did not purchase AM21st by accident, I absolutely believe in Lean, and our track record has absolutely validated this belief, but as you can see from the opening paragraph, I am clear headed about the challenges. Lean is not a panacea, the mythical Greek medicine to heal all diseases and aliments. The quote I opened the article is far from the only time I have heard this; indeed, it is the most common thing I hear, not just from shift managers, but from everyone from sewers to CEOs. Lean doesn’t work for them, or at least they don’t think it does.

So why did this man hate lean? Why do companies from Multi-National Giants to tiny family businesses recite the familiar mantra of “We tried it, but it doesn’t work here”. You cannot enroll in any business school that does not sing the praises of Lean, you cannot walk through the business section of a bookstore without being bombarded with a thousand shiny covers promising “The Secrets of Lean”. LinkedIn is crowded with consultants, “Influencers”, and bot accounts filling your feed with endless platitudes promising a revolution in manufacturing that already arrived 60 years ago. Yet despite this, countless businesses are left wondering why it doesn’t work for them. It seems to work for everyone else, but not here.

Lean is a concept. It is a mindset. If you google the definition of “Lean Manufacturing”, you will see a dozen different definitions, mostly from companies selling you something, that describe it as a Methodology, or a Process, or a Technique, but it really isn’t any of those. Your methodologies, processes, and techniques should come from a Lean mindset, but those are the products of Lean, not Lean itself. This is why Lean fails so often, people copy the products of Lean, without understanding the principles that created it.

The concept of Lean is simple. Get better. The Japanese word for the concept is Kaizen, and its application is interwoven with the very core of Lean ideology. Lean seeks to improve by eliminating waste, and this concept, at its very core, is not tied to any particular methodology, buzzword, or copying of someone else that is doing well. Copying someone else’s homework is not Lean. What works for a successful company you admire may not work for you, but the concept of constantly improving will absolutely work for you!

Lean projects should not ever fail, not if you have the right mindset. They may not accomplish the goals you set for them, but every project you attempt should result in a step forward, even a so-called failure will result in learning and changes to your methodologies. I was taught in the US Military at the very beginning of my career that “Failure” only applies to something you don’t learn from. The mindset where Lean thrives is a culture obsessed with moving forward, no matter how many times they are set back. When people say, “We tried Lean, it didn’t work”, what they mean is that they did not understand Lean, and merely attempted to implement what they thought was Lean.

At Americas 21st, our flagship process is a form of single piece flow, standup sewing called TSS. It is a complete system based on Lean concepts, and it is designed to be that step forward for manufacturers. But TSS is NOT Lean. TSS needs a Lean Mindset to succeed, there is no system ever created that can improve the operations of an organization unwilling to improve. TSS is not the perfect solution for everyone, its strengths and weaknesses may not line up perfectly with your specific needs. TSS can fail. It usually doesn’t, and I absolutely hold to my belief it is the single strongest production method for sewing operations out there, but there are sometimes reasons it isn’t the right solution. This absolutely does not invalidate Lean, as Lean isn’t about any company or methodology. If, in the pursuit of eliminating waste and improving your operations, a particular “Lean” methodology doesn’t fit, that is fine, keep working at getting better.

In closing, I want to leave you with some concrete tools to help you access your own Lean thinking and keep you on track for moving forward. There is an endless sea of Lean related concepts out there, and in this article, we covered exactly none of them for a reason, but most of them are excellent, but you must get this concept and attitude first. Don’t be afraid to adapt, if this list below feels incomplete, feel free to add to it.

  1. Stay Optimistic. You cannot improve unless you believe it is possible.
  2. Stay Realistic. You cannot improve unless you are realistic about the challenges.
  3. Stay Flexible. Sometimes the path you are on is not the one that leads forward.
  4. Stay Humble. The path forward is NEVER tied to your own ego.
  5. Stay Informed. You can’t improve a process without understanding it.
  6. Stay Diligent. Lean doesn’t end, you keep moving forward.
  7. Stay Empathetic. The path forward does NOT run over people. Bring them along.
  8. Stay Curious. There are countless things to learn out there, keep learning.

About the Author
Caleb Doty is a multifaceted leader blending military excellence with corporate acumen – Owner of Americas 21, Former GE Professional, U.S. Army Captain, and Proud University of Houston Graduate.

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