Superficial Improvement

Several years ago, I wrote a post (worth a quick re-read) entitled, “Rosie the Robot,” wondering how technology changes that have emerged in this century will affect continuous improvement efforts.   Now, with just a week to go before our 16th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Lean Conference, I’ll add this thought regarding my 8th Lean Peeve,  what Shigeo Shingo called superficial improvement, transferring a manual waste to a machine.

Having spent thirty years in manufacturing in the last century before becoming a consultant, I had a chance to be up close and personal with these kinds of superficial improvement:

  • High-speed machines that outproduced customer need by orders of magnitude.
  • IT systems that pushed instructions to over-produce into the factory before we knew what was actually needed. (I was an IT manager for six years.)
  • Fork lifts that carried the unneeded inventory to the stockroom.
  • High-bay automatic storage and retrieval systems that efficiently stored large quantities of inventory that were not needed.

These examples actually MULTIPLIED waste rather than reducing it — in the name of local efficiency.

Superficial improvement is supported not only by conventional cost accounting but also by this simplistic equation: 

Mechanization = Process Improvement

I wonder sometimes if this equation is taught in Engineering 101, because it’s a staple for many a machine justification. 

In fact, while the intelligent use of mechanization in the 20th century absolutely extended human capability, a great deal of that mechanization also, as in the examples above,  just created waste more efficiently.   Now, as we enter the next decade of this century, the emergence of powerful new technologies, referred to collectively as IoT, the Internet of Things, promise even greater enhancement to human capability. 

But is there also a risk that even greater waste may also be an outcome?  Effective convergence of digital transformation with  Lean transformation is the theme of this year’s Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference, 21st Century Lean.  I hope you’ll be able to join us for this significant discussion. 


5 thoughts on “Superficial Improvement

  1. Mallory Oeschger

    I think this was a great article in that over producing is so overlooked when it comes to new high tech machines doing the work. Companies will advertise new technology but not how far it sets them back.

  2. Abigail Person

    Hi O.L.D,

    I enjoyed this post and found myself agreeing with you on almost every point. It’s often thought that machines are always the best way to improve a process, but the more I research this, the harder it is to justify mechanization. For instance, at my job I have to comb through data every day that is given to me by an online program that manages our inventory. I often find multiple mistakes and discrepancies that would not have occurred if a few humans had taken an hour to do this themselves. This leads to me wasting a few hours of time that I could be using to do other tasks. This post really hit home with me, so thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Benjamin Fishbeyn

    This was a great post to read. Machines seems like the best option for manufacturing since they do not create mistakes like people and are much more efficient. Meeting customer demand often overlooks keeping up with waste management. While working for retail at CVS I noticed that they were unable to accurately anticipate the amount of demand. This would create an overstock for items and cause problems with space in the backroom.

  4. Stefan Diarbi

    Great post! I believe that manufacturing is more successful due to mechanization, however it’s important to program and use the machines correctly. While a machine can perform an incredible task at a very high rate, there is always room for error. One has to be prepared because they can perform like a human and make a mistake. Overall, I agree with you, especially with how machines can further expedite a process.

  5. Michael O'Flaherty

    Awesome post! I enjoyed how you discussed the downfalls of these new technologies as most people tend to over look them. Its clear that these new technologies will yield a high production, however, in return they could potentially produce more waste.


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