Printing Lean

Words of the masters

November 16, 2009

For this month's column I've decided to publish some quotes that I've come across over the past few years that, I feel, help drive home some of the basic precepts of Lean Manufacturing.

The first quote comes from a United States Army manual titled Infantry in Battle, first published in 1935 by the Infantry Journal Incorporated. The quote is attributed to then Colonel George C. Marshall, who oversaw the compilation of the manual. Marshall would soon rise to the rank of General of the Army, Army Chief of Staff, and both Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense under President Truman.

The art of war has no traffic with rules, for the infinitely varied circumstances and conditions of combat never produce exactly the same situation twice. Mission, terrain, weather, dispositions, armament, morale, supply, and comparative strength are variables whose mutations always combine to form a new tactical pattern. Thus, in battle, each situation is unique and must be solved on its own merits.

It follows, then, that the leader who would become a competent tactician must first close his mind to the alluring formulae that well-meaning people offer in the name of victory. To master his difficult art he must learn to cut to the heart of a situation, recognize its decisive elements and base his course of action on these. The ability to do this is not God-given, nor can it be acquired overnight; it is a process of years. He must realize that training in solving problems of all types, long practice in making clear, unequivocal decisions, the habit of concentrating on the question at hand, and an elasticity of mind, are indispensable requisites for the successful practice of the art of war.

The leader who frantically strives to remember what someone else did in some slightly similar situation has already set his feet on a well-traveled road to ruin.

In previous columns I've talked about Lean being a journey and that, on this journey, many things arise that take you off your intended path. I've made a Lean journey analogous to a voyage at sea, whereby a captain sets sail with a charted course and must constantly make adjustments based on the wind and tides.

The analogy in a Lean enterprise comes from the last line of the quote: "The leader who frantically strives to remember what someone else did in some slightly similar situation has already set his feet on a well-traveled road to ruin."

Many companies try and fail, some more spectacularly (or miserably, depending on your point of view) than others because they frantically strive to remember what someone else did in some slightly similar situation. In other words, they try simply to copy what another company has done, believing that it will work in their environment, too.

Nothing could be further from the truth. You cannot copy a successful company for one basic reason: You are not that company. You are your own company with your own set of ideals, values, mission and people. You have your own unique set of challenges that have "infinitely varied circumstances and conditions (which) never produce exactly the same situation twice." As in battle, every business faces challenges in which "each situation is unique and must be solved on its own merits."

The next quote comes from the well-known author and management consultant Peter Drucker.

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

This quote should be hung everywhere. There have been times when I've had to ask an individual or a team, "Why are you doing this?" What purpose does this activity serve? How does this align with your strategic goals? How does this add value for your customer?

Examples of this are the ubiquitous team and other meetings that companies are so enamored with. Sure, you may have run a very efficient meeting, but why did you have the meeting to begin with? What was so important that you had to bring a number of people together to have a discussion? Could this have been dealt with between just a few individuals meeting off-line for 10 or 15 minutes?

The most expensive thing that most small to mid-sized companies do is to hold a meeting. Think about this for a minute. How many people are there? What is the aggregated salary and benefit cost for everyone in the room? How long are they meeting for? The higher up in the organization you go the more expensive the meetings become on an hourly cost basis. Was this very expensive meeting, then, really worth the time? Some meetings take place for no reason other than that someone scheduled it.

Other examples are companies that implement a kanban system, or who "5s" their entire facility simply for the sake of doing it. Why? Kanban and 5s are tools meant to help solve problems. Is there a problem with inventory running out, or having too much, or with cash flow or floor space? If not, then why did you implement kanban? What problem or condition were you trying to correct? With 5s, your facility may look exceptional, but why was it necessary? What was the underlying condition or problem that compelled you to use the 5s tool? Most times companies have no answer – they've used the tool merely for the sake of using the tool and for no other reason.

The final quote comes from Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the "father" of the modern nuclear navy.

What it takes to do a job will not be learned from management courses. It is principally a matter of experience, the proper attitude, and common sense – none of which can be taught in a classroom Human experience shows that people, not organizations or management systems, get things done.

It's been said over and over again – Lean is about people. The people in your companies have hundreds, perhaps even a thousand or more, years of experience and it is these experiences, along with attitude and common sense, that will solve the problems you face every day.

So there they are, some pearls of wisdom from people who are much smarter than me. Like all things Lean, learning is a never ending journey, and I consider myself to be a perpetual student. I hope that you are as well.
Tom Southworth is a Lean consultant with ConnStep, Connecticut's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). He is a Senior Member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, an SME Lean Bronze Certified sensei, and a certified TWI Job Instruction Trainer. He can be reached by email at