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To Lean or not to Lean?

Posted on March 19, 2014 in Articles

It was some years ago that I learnt about how Toyota adopted certain practices and principles which would eventually make it one of the most successful and profitable auto-makers in the world. Known as the Toyota Way or Toyota Production System, some of these practices were later repackaged and called “Lean”. I have been a firm believer of Lean ever since.
But then, what’s not to like about Lean? It aims to improve productivity, quality, on-time delivery, reduce cost and lead time through waste elimination. It sounds like the ideal and perfect solution for organisations today.
So why then, are organisations hesitant to go Lean? Many use the term “Lean” as a fashionable buzz word till the next in-thing comes along. Why is there no conviction that a Lean mind-set and work culture is necessary for the organisation’s future competitiveness and perhaps survival?
One of the key reasons goes a long way up the organisation hierarchy and deep into the fabric of the organisation. Most cost reduction and improvement programmes are executed down at the operational level of the organisation. Organisations are quick to zoom in on areas that report high cost and sub-optimal results. Improvement programmes are quickly introduced to “turn things round before the end of the next reporting period”. There is no interest to change the work culture or mind-set – not in the operational level and certainly not in the highest echelon of the organisation structure. As organisations grow in size and spread out geographically, the disconnect between policy and decision-makers from day-to-day operations becomes more frequent and significant with dire results. Out-dated policies and inefficient protocols are common culprits that introduce wastes and non-value adding activities into daily operations. These slow down the work flow, increase use of resources, lead time, and subsequently, cost. Employees responsible to produce key results have their hands tied by red-tape and budgets, are hampered by limited resources and are routinely bogged down by non-value adding work.
One would think that understanding waste and its impact would be basic knowledge in any profit making organisation. Apparently, this is not the case. Organisational learning of Lean appears to be slow, paved with misconceptions and deep-rooted structural barriers. Few companies are able to successfully overcome such giants in their quest. Success comes at the price of much investment of time and effort into organisational learning and initiatives that transverse all corners of the organisation. But for those who succeed, the rewards are well worth the efforts and investments. Some went on to become the industry benchmark for growth and success. 
“ To Lean, or not to Lean?”, that is indeed the question!

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