“Work Intensification” Isn’t Lean

A few weeks ago, I posted about an article,  written by someone who referred to himself as a Marxist.  That article was a critique of lean.  It emphasized the point that lean was mostly about “work intensification” that was unsafe and unhealthy for workers.  I was a bit puzzled by that critique;  I’ve always told clients that lean leads to a calmer, less intense work environment.  I couldn’t figure out whence the accusation of making work more intense came from.

I’ve been reading a book, Just Another Car Factory?, about the lean initiatives at a General Motors/Suzuki auto assembly plant in Canada.  The book reports on a study that focuses on the impact of the lean efforts on the workers themselves more than it is on the operating processes of the plant.  It’s a well-referenced book that doesn’t seem to have a strident agenda.  It does a good job of presenting “just the facts”.

The plant sought to emulate the Toyota Production System (TPS).  TPS puts a great deal of emphasis on controlling process variability through work and task standardization.  In addition, it fosters a fierce attention to identifying and getting rid of “waste”.  This hyper-attention to waste seems to result in a continual shaving of seconds of “breathing time” (my words) from each minute of work.  Workers complained of being overburdened.  Further, the pace and nature of the work led to high incidence of ergonomic injuries.

All to say, I see now where people can get the idea that lean is bad for workers.

I’ve never worked in or consulted for an auto plant.  The only “assembly” operation I’ve worked with was the maker of a popular blender, where workers performed their tasks, then passed the partially completed item down the table to the next assembler.  The last employee on the line put the blender and an instruction manual into a box and the blender was ready to ship.  The workers, rather than “the line”, set the pace.

Most of the places I’ve worked were paced by the workers themselves.  In none of these cases did I think that my job was to get them to be more “efficient” by getting a few seconds of additional work out of them.  In fact, I viewed my role as one of making their jobs easier and less frustrating.  The “waste” embedded in operators’ time isn’t due to laziness or negligence.  It’s due to high process variability.

Let me say that again…far and away, the largest source of waste in any manufacturing organization is process variability.  

About twenty years ago, I had a client that extruded PVC conduit and pipe.  A team at the client’s plant in Florida sought to reduce scrap.  Digging into the metrics, the team couldn’t see a pattern as to which causes of scrap were most prevalent.  The Pareto chart of causes was flat (or nearly so).  A scrap cause that was prevalent one month would be nearly gone the next month but no changes in process had occurred (that we could identify).  Somewhat frustrated, I suggested that the team “go back to basics” and look for standard that weren’t in place or weren’t being adhered to.  Our first step was to walk each extrusion line, taking note of any “out of standard” condition with respect to the machinery and equipment.  

We found that the machinery and equipment provided a “target rich field” for conditions that were out of standard.  In fact, it was all pretty much held together with bailing wire, vise grips, and C-clamps.  (I run into this same condition almost everywhere I go.)  Individually, each vise grip or C-clamp seems to be a small thing.  Collectively, though, they create vibration, slippage, a continual need to monitor, and a variety of other conditions that make it difficult for operators to make a good product.  Collectively, these small sources of variation add up to what amounts to “work intensification” for many operators.  They are continually having to watch, adjust, correct for, and solve problems that shouldn’t be occurring in the first place.  Remove these sources of variation and operators’ jobs get easier even as quality and throughput improve.  No “work intensification” is needed.

“But,” you might ask, “isn’t there opportunity in finding waste in how operators and associates use their time?”  Yes…but all that opportunity lies in the fact that those operators and employees are forced to address and manage process variability.  Focus on how to get a few more seconds of work out of operators who are already burdened with fighting fires in unsafe conditions will just lead to high turnover.  Focus on getting operators to help you identify sources of process variation, no matter how seemingly small, and you’ll create a culture in which quality, throughput, and employee retention are high.