Breaking subconscious conditioning – exploring obstacles to lean manufacturing

Posted on 9 Sep 2010 by The Manufacturer

Michael Hammer, co-founder of the Business Process Re-engineering Management theory, said that 50% of companies fail to ‘do lean’ and for 70% of companies who have tried, lean was not fully implemented. Will Stirling finds out what obstacles lean faces in an organisation.

When it works, the power of lean manufacturing is intoxicating.

Just ask Cogent Orb Electrical Steels (Cogent). The South Wales-based maker of high grade electrical steel, used in the power generation industry, was on its knees in 2003 and faced closure. Lean – or at least Cogent’s interpretation of lean and the cultural change that it brought with it – saved the business.

Lean can be very simple, while still a revelation.

“Tell everyone where you are, what you’re going to do and why you’re going to do it,” says John Homewood, continuous improvement and safety manager at Cogent in Newport. “Before we called this ‘lean’ it helped us to turn the business around, make a profit and live to fight another day.

For us, it provided a great foundation for future understanding within the workforce, business growth and maturity into lean.” Cogent is not alone. Across the UK, manufacturers, financial services companies and public sector institutions like hospitals have been transformed in the way they function and communicate with their staff, focusing only on adding value to the customer and consequently driving out waste. Exponents of lean can be positively evangelical about the benefits it brings.

And lean is surely essential for manufacturing in a high cost economy: without lean or TPS derivative systems in practice, Honda, Nissan and Toyota would not build cars in the UK.

But if lean is so great, why don’t all companies of a critical size ‘do’ it? And why does lean not always work in those organisations who’ve tried it? Is it the people? Are the tools incompatible with the organisation? Has the consultant failed? Exploring obstacles to a lean programme is like opening Pandora’s box, where the forces that escape are a potent combination of organisational behaviour, psychology, management techniques and manufacturing processes. A trite answer for why lean stumbles is: we are only human, and naturally resistant to change. But humans are also smart and, when shown a system that makes sense and the benefits of that system, very adaptable.

Despite our intelligence, however, subconscious conditioning is a powerful force and one of the biggest obstacles to embracing a lean mindset is overcoming conflicting and deeply entrenched mindsets, says Andie Hallihan, managing consultant at business consultancy Applied Angle. “Many of us are conditioned to think ‘mass’, to think big is good. At one level many of us know that is wrong, but few of us know how it is wrong, and its implications. Look at consumer behaviour: we buy two pints of milk because it’s cheaper than buying one pint of milk twice. This is ingrained and it’s difficult to unlearn.” There are obstacles to both lean implementation and sustainability. If a crude breakdown of obstacles to implementation is divided into two parts, technical and human, this article focuses on the technical obstacles.

Technical – Simple tools-based
Hallihan says there are two main levels of lean obstacles: the technical and human side. The technical side can be split into two camps, where the first is tools-based. “That’s the easy stuff to teach and understand. 5S, SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Die), kanban trays – none of these are insurmountable. These are not the reason why lean fails,” he says.

However, adopting a technique but letting it slip a few months later is a good example of where lean fails. The obstacle: it might be as simple as cultural differences. ”Consultants have always pushed a certain technique,” says Chris Butlin, specialist manufacturing advisor at MAS West Midlands. “We started to push quality circles in the 1970s, the Japanese started in the 1950s. Now they’re all but gone in UK companies, or not used in the same way, while in Japan they’re still operating everywhere and have a monthly magazine. The idea of starting a new way of working and continuing it is not part of British shopfloor culture.” Chris Butlin accepts that this is an oversimplification, and there are many UK companies where lean is embedded and the buy-in from staff is as good as it will be in some Japanese companies.

But the default response from companies to “try lean out” as a short term exercise to improve productivity is arguably more common in the West than in the birthplace of TPS. Butlin trained at Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan in the 1980s. “I visited all their plants – shipbuilding, train building, aircraft, motorbikes, heavy engineering – and 35 years on from starting, it’s still embedded in the system. The entire culture of these companies is focused on continuous improvement. We [the UK] are often looking for a panacea. A consultant walks through the door and says ‘I’ve got this product called Lean manufacturing.’ The MD says ‘let’s try that’, without considering that they will be embarking on a long, difficult journey.”

Tools can be blunted
Back to the simple stuff, basic housekeeping can make a big impact on minimising waste, and therefore cost. Sustaining even simple behaviours is harder than it might seem. “You can return six months later and it’s reverted to where it was before,” says Butlin. “Why isn’t someone policing this? To get true cultural change, you need to have someone putting their foot down, saying this is not an option. We’ve lost the discipline required to achieve and sustain this.” One school of thought holds that in order to convert to the meaning of lean you have to see it and feel it. “I took Triumph Motorcycles to Japan in 1992 when they were setting up their factory in Hinkley,” says MAS’s Chris Butlin. “I showed them around Kawasaki’s motorcycle factory for a week, and they were amazed and quickly become lean converts.

When their plant was set up it was almost a mirror image of the Kawasaki plant. I can enthuse about this, but unless people go to where it happens and sees in the flesh, it is difficult to get the conversion.” So do you have to visit a Japanese-owned factory to embrace lean? No, as many UK companies will testify, although the experience of Triumph was no doubt illuminating.

When lean tools are adopted they can sometimes mislead the well-meaning. Mike Anthony, senior lean coach at Cogent Orb Electrical Steels, says that following Total Productive Maintenance training, one team leader wanted to run a project on the mill. He thought it must need TPM because of a perceived bottleneck. “He wanted the whole area team involved in a series of weekly 8-hour workshops over two months,” says Anthony. In fact the mill was working fine, with some minor delays but there was no bottleneck in that part of the value stream.”The TPM programme was halted after a couple of workshops and the team were deployed to work on issues further upstream, which were causing irregular flow of material to the mill that was causing mill downtime – this was its biggest delay.”

Technical – Counter-intuitive Assuming companies apply and sustain the tools, the Part II of technical obstacles is the counterintuitive side, says Applied Angle’s Hallihan. Here, the obstacle is people’s innate reluctance to accept that a method of manufacture they have been wedto for years can be improved quickly.

“People often say lean is mostly common sense; what they mean is that the intuitive side of lean is the bigger element. The counter-intuitive is the dark side, with ideas like flow, levelling and heijunka,” says Hallihan. “When you ask a group of fitters why they make ten of those items on a bench and not one ten times, they say ‘because it’s quicker to do big batch’. No, it’s actually quicker to do one piece flow.” Learning that the method you have used to manufacture for 20 years is not as efficient as a new procedure can be very difficult, not least because of the power of subconscious conditioning. “Try telling a mother she has an ugly baby – good luck. You’re a director who’s worked at a company for many years; euphemistically it’s your baby. I’ve just insulted you.

How do you feel? It’s the more common reason why lean is rejected.” How often is the new, introduced way of working rejected in the first instance? About 98% of times, Hallihan says (see below for an example of this conditioning).

The shock of the new: Subconscious conditioning
People often reject what they can see with their own eyes, says Andie Hallihan of Applied Angle.

“We put one piece flow in place in an automotive company.

Lucy’s cell was reconfigured.

Her production manager Pete is watching. Within half an hour she’s mastered one piece flow, and she needs no help at all.

Pete is uncomfortable, so I ask him how is Lucy doing with her numbers? Pete does the numbers on a piece of paper.

The answer comes out at 130% utilisation. Pete fights to maintain 88% in his department, plus or minus a few per cent.

Under the incumbent batch system, you’re doing well if you score in the early 90s (%).

Lucy’s got 130% in half an hour of one piece flow. Pete’s reaction is interesting: he rips up the paper and recalculates it.

He gets the same score. In front of his eyes he has watched Lucy implement one piece flow in 30 minutes and he doesn’t like it. Pete has evaluated this himself and rejected it. He’s on the point of rejecting it again when I offer to get him a ream of paper. He swears at me. Pete has worked here for 20 years.

Don’t underestimate the power of subconscious conditioning”.

Human obstacles are the highest On the human side, obstacles elevate to another level. Here board directors must address whether individuals that were the best candidates for the mass organisation are suitable for the new, lean-devoted organisation – more on this idea in the next article on lean obstacles.

Another common, human factor in becoming lean is preconceptions of lean. “A key obstacle is where employees have been exposed to poor attempts of Lean implementation, which are often poorly understood, tool-based attempts,” says Constellation Park’s Lloyd. “This creates a negative view and resistance to Lean when a company attempts to launch a Lean Operational culture in the correct way by focusing on employee education, understanding and engagement.”

Human side obstacles to sustaining lean will be discussed in the next article in this series