Twice in the last month I’ve heard the phrase “Traditional Lean” used in public presentations. In neither case did the presenter explain the expression, but one displayed a slide with a Venn diagram showing the overlap between Lean and Six Sigma. I suppose this means that he defined Traditional Lean as meaning Lean plus something else, in his case, Six Sigma. For both presenters, however, the word “Traditional” implied passé. They were moving on. Lean, or Lean-Sigma, if you prefer that definition of “traditional”, was a dated process, in need of enhancement or even replacement. In the 1980’s, I referred to Lean and Six Sigma respectively as TPS and QC Tools. Each was derived in part from W. Edwards Deming’s post-World War II reconstruction efforts in Japan. In that pre-Lean era, there was little literature about TPS and few consultants. Being one of those folks old enough to remember when there was neither Lean nor Six Sigma – at least in name – I find this latest buzzification of Lean to “traditional Lean” amusing. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve been encouraged to employ alternative approaches to productivity improvement:
By 1985, when American manufacturing was reeling from declining market dominance, an HBS article entitled “MRP, JIT, OPT, FMS” began what has since become a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms each describing a supposed elixir to the problems of rising costs and disappearing customers. The article is worth a read, if only from the standpoint of showing how focused we were at the time on better methods for scheduling production and reducing inventories.
JIT was the popular surrogate for TPS in the mid-80’s, often juxtaposed with MRP (Material Requirements Planning.) Back then, the pejorative “traditional” adjective was used to describe push-production of which MRP, a network scheduling system, was a part; we called it “traditional manufacturing.”
FMS, flexible manufacturing systems, was a techno alternative to TPS that proposed superior flexibility through use of robotics and automation to move material and information through the factory. In a notorious example of FMS, General Motors attempted in the 1980’s to create fully automated facilities. All told, GM spent 90 billion (yes, billion) dollars to “modernize” its operations. While TPS sought to elevate employees, GM tried to automate them out the picture. Ultimately, GM’s lights-out people-less plants were deemed unworkable and were mothballed.
As for OPT, Optimized Production Technology, this was another alternative to TPS from Eliyahu Goldratt (author of “The Goal”) to develop a computer-assisted queuing model that scheduled around bottlenecks. After taking a couple of Dr. Goldratt’s classes in the late 80’s, I decided that if I could actually define all of the parameters needed to run OPT, I would know so much about my plant that I wouldn’t need any software to schedule around bottlenecks. I’ve always been an Eli Goldratt fan, but this particular TPS alternative, like MRP and FMS was yet another software/ technology solution to a problem that went far deeper than automation of information and material flow. Interestingly, all of the alternatives to TPS noted in the HBS article, proposed information and production automation as viable solutions to flagging productivity and competitiveness. Even TPS, was thought to be only a scheduling model.
In the 1990’s, along with renaming TPS to Lean, came more techno solutions: Agile manufacturing, boasted Lee Iacocca at Chrysler, would “leapfrog” Lean. Agile, described at the time as the next step “beyond Lean,” promised faster response and greater flexibility through a combination of IT integration and physical re-organization. It was big on concept but light on details. At the same time, Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, popularized yet another improvement method, 6s (Six Sigma), presented at first as an alternative to Lean and later through the marketing genius of a large consulting firm, mashed into “LeanSigma.” The mid-90’s, also brought us business process reengineering, BPS, an IT-driven methodology aimed at radical process change. This top-down change method had a de-humanizing impact on organizations; a condition that many understand today is a major deterrent to continuous improvement.
And all of these software-assisted tools can be rolled into one mother acronym, ERP, which is MRP plus all of the above except TPS. Readers of one my recent posts will recall ERP referenced as “the granddaddy of excuses” for not spending time on continuous improvement : )
So what does all of this have to do with “traditional Lean?” Here’s my take: Over the last three decades, organizations have spent too much time searching for technical alternatives or supplements to Lean without first understanding Lean basics. I’ve listed just a few of these experiments: MRP, FMS, OPT, Agile, BPS, 6s, ERP. Perhaps you can add some others. While there may be merit to some of the thinking behind each of these concepts , they have unfortunately diverted attention and resources away from the hard work of learning people-centric TPS. I think “traditional Lean” is TPS. It’s what Lean was before we consultants got our mitts into it. Call me a TPS ideologue. I’m good with that. Do you agree or disagree? Share a thought.
And don’t forget:
- Today is the last day to get the early bird price on registration for The Northeast Lean Conference coming October 4-5 in Worcester MA. Visit www.NortheastLeanConference.org to learn much more.
- We’re still accepting list items for Kanban misconceptions from my last blog post and will randomly select a winner for one free registration for the conference on Friday of this week. See Eye of the Beholder to add your comment.
- GBMP’s calendar of Shingo Institute workshops is jam packed through October. Check it out here and join us for a workshop or two soon.