Printing Lean

What's it all about, Alfie?

March 11, 2011

Lean, more popularly (and in my opinion, misguidedly) referred to as "Lean Manufacturing," has been getting a slow reception and even a bad rap in many commercial and industrial communities, and the print industry is not immune to this criticism. I say misguidedly because Lean is about so much more than just manufacturing, but let's save that for another article.

The continuing almost-but-not-quite depression that has hamstrung our global economy hasn't helped to get Lean accepted in the mainstream business community and become the only way that owners and executives should conduct a commercial enterprise.

That's too bad, because the basic precepts of Lean that underpin everything that Lean practitioners stand for are the same guiding principles that mankind has and will always continue to strive toward for all time: personal integrity, respect for all others, a desire for fulfillment in one's life and career while providing the opportunity for others to achieve the same.

I'm often told, or sometimes lectured to, that while Lean sounds good on paper it "can never work here" because (fill in the blanks):

"(_________________) are too (__________________) to (_________________)."

employees lazy change
owners greedy care
managers busy breathe
customers insensitive notice
suppliers detached understand
competitors cheap compete
costs high sustain
ranks lean start

There are probably dozens, even hundreds, of other comments but I think that this is a fair sampling of the responses that I've heard recently and over the years about why Lean will "never work here." For a Lean practitioner this constant negative barrage would get depressing after a while and perhaps cause me to become disillusioned if not for one thing: the knowledge of what I know Lean can and will eventually do for these companies once they understand, and the overriding belief that "if the person hasn't learned (about Lean), the instructor (me) hasn't taught."

For those of you who have been exposed to the Training Within Industry (TWI) service method known as Job Instruction you'll recognize that last line: "If the person hasn't learned, the instructor hasn't taught." I've been teaching and coaching people on this very principle for a couple of years and it was only recently that I came to realize this very simple truth: If any person to whom I'm speaking recites one or more of the fill-in-the-blank answers above, then that person doesn't understand Lean. If he or she doesn't understand Lean, then he or she hasn't learned what Lean is and what Lean is not. And if they haven't learned then they haven't been properly taught, and that means I haven't done my job.

Once I understood and accepted this, I began to change how I approach trying to teach the subject of Lean and how I can and should be teaching people using the TWI Job Instruction methods, which are essentially the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) cycle restated as Prepare, Present, Try Out, and Follow Up.

For many years I've been trying to get people to understand Lean in very simple terms. Yes, there are standard definitions or descriptions of Lean, such as: "a strategy to identify and eliminate waste in a never ending pursuit of perfection." But people are not learning this; so we, I, must not be teaching it in a way that allows them to learn.

In a previous column I wrote about my personal definition or description of Lean, which is a way to perform one's task (or run one's business):


To me it's that simple, but obviously it's not that simple to others and that means that I've failed to teach them just what those four points mean, so here's my pledge going forward into 2011 and beyond: I'm going to use the methodology of providing proper instruction (Job Instruction) to teach people about Lean.

It sounds simple, and I hope that it is, but I'm a realist and I know that I have my work cut out for me. What I intend to do in the pages of this magazine as well as every day is to teach people what Lean is by giving them:

Important Steps
Key Points

If you remember the basics of Job Instruction and using a Job Breakdown Sheet (JBS) you'll recognize those three terms: Important Steps, Key Points, and Reasons.

In Job Instruction, an Important Step is a logical segment of the operation when something happens to advance the work. In other words, if you do not conduct this important step you cannot continue with the operation. Important Steps are what you do to advance the work.

Key Points tell us how to perform the Important Step, stressing safety, quality and productivity. Key points that relate to productivity are usually those that have developed over time as best practices and can sometimes be referred to as "tribal knowledge." I sometimes refer to the education in tribal knowledge as social learning: You see it and you do it but you haven't been taught what or why – you're just going along with the crowd.

Reasons are fairly straightforward – they're why you perform the Important Step in the manner prescribed by the Key Points. I give people the Reasons, the why, whenever I constantly repeat my "safer, easier, better, economical" mantra, but I realize that I haven't been doing a good job of teaching the Important Steps and the Key Points that those four reasons are meant to reinforce. What are those steps that must be done in order to advance Lean? What are the Key Points, the "tribal knowledge" that I as a Lean practitioner have learned to use, that I can tell someone how to advance at each step?

So that is what it will be all about from this point forward: teaching Lean by stressing its Important Steps, its Key Points, and its Reasons. By practicing what I preach I intend to show people how Lean can work here, there and everywhere. By teaching Lean using the time-tested methods of Job Instruction my hope is that others will then begin to use the same methods to teach another, then another, and so on and so on. Giving people the knowledge of Lean and then helping them to develop their skill in using its guiding principles will begin to change the perception of Lean and its worth in restoring and strengthening our balance sheets, our communities and our lives.

Tom Southworth is a Lean consultant with CONNSTEP, Connecticut's Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He is a Senior Member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, a senior member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, SME Lean Bronze Certified, and a certified TWI Job Instruction and Job Relations Trainer. He can be reached by email at