When Stan Davis wrote Future Perfect in 1987 (then called the “book of the decade,” and still a good read), he foresaw a reversal in thinking that has since become normal. For example, the expression “Time is money,” has flipped to “Money is time,” the focus now being on money as the measure of time. While his book was not specifically a Lean book, it coined the term “mass customization,” that is now a basic customer expectation. Most impactful for me, however, was his reminder that organization follows strategy, and that as strategy does a 180, we need to modify our organization and policy to support it. New jobs and entire organizations have sprung up in the last 30 years to support Lean Transformation. The same is true for Digital Transformation. New job titles, new reporting structures and new policies all to support technology that was science fiction when I entered the workforce. These are good changes to embrace.
What has been more difficult, however, for many organizations, is letting go of the old organization and policy that supported earlier strategies. These constructs that have been baked into our infrastructure and systems die hard. One example of this is the concept of direct and indirect labor.
Let’s call it Indirect Distortion, Lean Peeve #4.
Fifty years ago, when I entered the manufacturing world, roles were very clear: You were either touching the product or not. Supervisors, material handlers, stock keepers, inspectors all were considered indirect. But as our shopfloor adopted a Lean strategy, the closer we approached one-piece-flow, the distinction between direct and indirect became more blurred. For example, when we set-up a cafeteria style stock area adjacent to assembly and rotated assemblers through the material handler role there was initial pushback. “You can’t have direct folks doing indirect tasks,” I was told. Why? It would “mess up our costs.” Fortunately for me, our V.P. of Finance visited the floor for himself to understand. The job was reclassified.
On the other hand, as our stockroom shrank, we redeployed stock keepers to insource production from an external supplier. Until our standard cost system caught up, this created an illusion that were losing money. Once again, through some myth-buster heroics from our V.P of Finance we demonstrated that the change was, in fact, super-profitable. I was fortunate to have this support on site. Many sites, like one I worked with years later as a consultant, do not have that advantage. I once visited a division of a medical device manufacturer that was deemed by the corporation to be its productivity leader. What I learned on my visit was that this site unofficially “borrowed” production workers from the floor to make improvements and solve problems. This deceptive practice, while highly effective, was hidden from corporate management, lest the borrowed workers be classified as indirect labor at a time when management was taking an ax to that population. “Doesn’t corporate see this?” I asked. “No,” replied the site manager, “they never visit.”
A memorable quote from Jim Womack, our opening keynote at this year’s Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference, comes to mind: “Cost accounting makes liars out of all of us.” The point is that a Lean strategy is too often thwarted by status quo organization and policy and, in this case, even the language that describes it.
Stay tuned. Lean Peeve #5 coming tomorrow. Oh and by the way… there are less than two weeks until my organization’s annual, but inaugural virtual, conference, “The Northeast Lean Conference: 21st Century Lean”. Send a team and recharge your Lean batteries for 2021. Here’s the link the program and registration.