Real Lean versus Faux Lean


Just to make a couple of things clear …

Lean & Headcount

Having fewer people doesn’t make a company lean. It just means they have fewer people. Period. Statements like, “Thanks to the increasing adoption of lean manufacturing practices, the modern print business is often being run on as small a workforce as possible,” are not even remotely correct and demonstrate considerable ignorance of lean.

The number of people a lean company has is the number of people necessary to provide maximum value to customers. Lean companies constantly look to eliminate non-value adding work, but lean companies also view their employees as valuable stakeholders who are no to be ‘down-sized’. That leaves growth as the source of financial benefits.

The non-value adding folks can support greater volumes of business. Supervisors have greater spans when people are empowered. Quality inspectors can support many more suppliers and incoming parts when those suppliers are capable partners. And on and on.

'Lean and mean' is a curious phrase. The number of people a company has is in no way, shape or form an indication of their lean-ness.

Lean & Inventory

Carrying less inventory than a company needs to protect itself and its customers from the effects of risk and problems is not lean – it is bad management. The leanest companies carry whatever inventory it needs to get the job done and take care of customers.

The difference between lean and not lean companies is that lean companies understand that inventory is a function of lead time and variability. Shortening lead times makes them more responsive to customers. Variability is the result of problems and problems cost money.

Lean companies continuously work on shortening lead times and on bringing problems to the surface and solving them. As a result, their lead times continuously decrease and variability softens. When these things happen, less inventory is needed.

Eliminating inventory without improving lead times and the problems that underly variability, however, doesn’t make a company lean – it makes it mismanaged. Implementing one piece flow or JIT supplier deliveries without first fixing the causes for not having done this all along simply exposes customers to risk

Lean and Green

Eliminating non-value adding work is, by its very definition, good for the environment. All work and all resources consume some degree of natural resources and / or energy. Doing less work and consuming fewer resources in the process of creating value for customers is, therefore, good for the environment.

The inverse is not true. All environmental improvements are not lean. That doesn’t mean the environmental improvement is not a good thing – but it does not necessarily make the company leaner. Switching to biodegradable packaging, for instance, may well have a positive overall landfill impact, but if the customer does not perceive an increase in value as a result (and most customers perceive most packaging as waste, rather than a contributor to value), and the cost is the same, the switch has not made the company any leaner.

Just because a company has made an environmental commitment, it does not follow that they are leaner. It just means they made an environmental commitment.

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