What is at the heart of Lean?

My google alert for "lean manufacturing" brought the following article to my attention. Please read this quick article about a successful company making low-tech products in the US. I have no reason to doubt that this company is financially successful as a result of their lean efforts.

After reading this article, I was left with the impression that once again, Lean tools are what transformed this company. Stunning improvement numbers reinforce the assumption that automation technology and reconfigured ERP systems that backflush production numbers are the key to this company's success.

My question is this: what is the real success factor in this case? Do these automated machines realize the importance of small lot production? Does the ERP system run the visual (and physical kanban) system prior to backflushing? Does the ERP system go out to the floor to see problems that cause stockouts? Who crosstrained the people to work in the flexible workcells? The ERP system? The machining center? Who learned and performed the value stream mapping and coached people through the 5S principles? How many times can you count the word "person" or "people" in this article? Go back to the link and see if you can find either of these words.

I'm conducting a Job Instruction session this week. During Job Instruction sessions, people tend to conclude that the "emperor has no clothes" when referring to lean tools. What they really mean is that the lean tools are meaningless without understanding. The thing that strikes me as profound about the TWI program are three-fold: 1) PDCA thinking is cloaked in each TWI session, and PDCA is at the heart of EVERY Lean tool, 2) the program is intended to make people of industry better, and 3) TWI founders consciously created a system that was so generalized that it applied to any person in any industry wanting to improve their unique process. The awful irony is that people do not realize that people are the heart of Lean systems.

Perhaps the article referenced above wasn't intended to highlight the importance of people. Perhaps this company is excellent at developing its people to the best of their ability and we just don't know it by reading this article. Perhaps leadership is difficult to describe in less than 750 words. Most companies however, are not excellent at developing their people and focus on the biggest bang for their buck, while never thinking about why developing their people through critical thinking skills will sustain the gains.

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