Lean Manufacturing Principles: No “Manufacturing Heroics”

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be going over what I consider to be some of the fundamental principles of agile thinking and practice.  Every approach, every model has to have a set of principles on which it’s founded.  To take a really big example, all the laws in the US are built on the principle that all people are created equal and are entitled to equal protection under those laws.

My agile principles won’t be quite as meaningful but you get the idea, I hope.

So, let’s get started.

A few years ago, I was visiting a plant in Kankakee, IL.  I was talking with one of the operators who was giving me chapter and verse of the problems he ran into in trying to produce a quality product efficiently.  Bad material, bad schedules, bad information, bad tooling, bad equipment and on and on.  He concluded by saying, “But, in spite of all that, I get it done.”

In his own eyes, and I’m sure in the eyes of his managers, he was a “manufacturing hero”.  He fulfilled the mission, met the goals, captured the hill in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles.  But it occurred to me at that moment that his “heroism” was a significant part of the problem.  The company, and certainly the customers of the company, would have been much better off if that operator and his associates at the plant told management, “I’m not running this bad material.  I’m not operating this faulty equipment with it’s inadequate tooling. And I’m not running this ad hoc, reactive schedule you keep handing me.”  Better yet, of course, would be a management team that held inviolable the principle that operators never have to “just get it done”, that they always have adequate, capable materials, tools, equipment, supplies, and information to do their jobs.

I’ve seen “manufacturing heroics” played out in other ways in other organizations.  The supervisor who grabs a wrench and pushes everyone aside to fix a die or a machine that’s not running right.  The managers who spent time each day in long meetings developing operating schedules. Hours of overtime expended because the ship dates had to be met.

I know, I know…there are times when any manufacturing operation has to resort to these tactics.  The question is, are these tactics the norm, as they clearly were in the Kankakee plant?  If the operations are continually dependent on “manufacturing heroics” to get product out the back door, something is clearly wrong.

Agile concepts and tools are designed to get rid of these heroic actions.  But the first step is to quit holding them up as the sort of behavior that’s expected or desired.