Lean Manufacturing, Again?

Lean Manufacturing Again

Nearly forty years ago, Toyota’s production system (TPS) was given a new generic name, “lean production.” Most people called it “lean manufacturing” owing to TPS’s manufacturing origin. The term “lean production” existed until about 2007 when there became a broader realization that Lean principles and practices apply to the work in all parts of a company. So “lean production” became “Lean management.” But to many people, “lean manufacturing” never went away.

Generations of CEOs (in 5-7 years stints) have clearly sent message that they reject replacing classical management with Lean management. Nor do they have interest in Just-in-Time, kaizen, and “Respect for People.” And not much interest in “lean office” either. But they have, as always, an enduring interest in tools that will drive labor productivity improvement for workers, which salaried staff happily facilitate.

Over that long, 40-year stretch of time, there have been great advances in automation, robotics, and now artificial intelligence. While these advances in technology do not fundamentally eliminate the need for TPS or Lean management — their necessity could even increase — the practical impact could be a reversion to Lean’s manufacturing origin. This presupposes that automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence will increase labor productivity such that it will undercut the historical raison d’être of Lean management.

Nevertheless, labor will still be needed in all aspects of business, but less so in some areas and more so in others. Current predictions among economists and artificial intelligence analysts is that manufacturing labor will decline more than skilled office labor, but labor will still be needed in manufacturing. If Lean management reverts back to “Lean manufacturing” — tools to improve operations — then the work of a generation of people to advance Lean management will be mostly wiped out. If this happens, it would be a repeat of what happened to Scientific Management around 90 years ago.

Agent Smith Clones

Knowing what top leaders really want (or just capitulating to leaders’ demands), the Lean tools brigade of salaried professionals will prevail (has prevailed) just as their Scientific Management predecessors did. It reminds me of the Agent Smith clones from The Matrix movies. Most Lean and continuous improvement professionals read the same things, thought the same way, did the same things, and, knowingly or not, perpetuated the status quo under the guise of “improvement.” Overall, they have been more like agents of same than agents of change.

Whether or not “Lean manufacturing” returns, one must marvel at the effectiveness of the forces that have long existed to thwart significant changes in management thinking and practice. And, equally, the ineffectiveness of decades-long efforts to advance the practice of progressive management.

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