Printing Lean

To be continued…

By Tom Southworth | May 22, 2012

Five years ago, Jack Kenny and I had a conversation about Lean for an article that appeared in Label and Narrow Web. In that article I spoke about how some printers, more specifically label converters, had begun to dabble in some of the Lean tools without having an understanding of just what it took to become a Lean enterprise.

After that article was published, Jack asked if I would be interested in writing a regular column for the magazine about Lean and I leapt at the chance. What better way to get the word out to label converters than in the pages of Label and Narrow Web magazine?

Since the first article appeared in the summer of 2007 I’ve tried to use this column to both educate and challenge label executives to go beyond the application of a few Lean tools and make the investment in what it would take to become a Lean organization.

Those of you who know me personally know that my role as a Lean consultant for a Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) allows me to take the very same messages to many, many other industries. That role has been, and continues to be, both rewarding and educational and one that will take me in new directions, so this will be my last regular column for Label and Narrow Web. Before I ride off into the sunset, though, I’d like to recap just a few of the most important lessons we’ve learned over these past five years.

The most important lesson of all is that nothing happens without people. You can have the latest and greatest systems and equipment, but you need people to install, maintain and operate that equipment. Without good people your equipment is nothing more than a collection of expensive toys.
“A bad system will beat a good person every time.”
- W. Edwards Deming 
The job of a leader is to make the work easier for anyone to do; therefore we must improve the system. People can’t do their best if the system is broken. Developing employees into problem solvers and engaging them in improving the system is the only way to get this done. Screaming, yelling, and making threats to “get it done” are not the way to get things accomplished.
“You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”
- Dwight Eisenhower 

Develop your employees
Problem solving skills are not innate. We must teach problem solving skills if we’re to create problem solvers in our organizations. If a person isn’t doing what we need them to do then we’ve failed to teach them. It’s that simple. If we feel that we have “deadwood” in our organizations then we’ve failed at being leaders, because either we hired deadwood or we hired “live ones” and then killed them. We killed their desire, their drive, their motivation, their integrity, their sense of worth and we did this by failing to do our job of developing them into problem solvers engaged in making the system work. 

Admit that there are problems
We all need to eat a little humble pie. I don’t have all of the answers and neither do you. No one person does but collectively we can and will find the answers that will allow us to keep moving forward.

Continuous really means continuous
Transforming an organization from traditional command-and-control into a Lean thinking, problem solving, leadership-driven enterprise is not an easy task. It takes commitment, it takes resources, it takes communication, but most of all it takes an acknowledgement that the need for commitment, resources and communication never ends. You cannot move forward by stopping.

Learning never ends
As I wrap up my five years I want to thank everyone for your comments, contributions and stories of your own Lean journeys. I’ve learned important lessons from each and every submission and I hope that I never stop learning from you.  While I may no longer be writing a regular column, if I can be of any help please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’m only a click away.

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