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Our "teachable point of view"

In the March-April 1999 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Noel Tichy describes what he calls a "teachable point of view," a two-page statement of "what a person knows and believes about what it takes to succeed in his or her own business as well as in business generally." According to the article, Ford executives, from Jac Nasser on downwards are writing their teachable points of view and going over them with their teams. We're smaller than Ford, but we like Tichy's format, more as a way to communicate with you than among ourselves, and this page is our crack at telling you how we envision what we do for a living.

What we do

We help companies implement lean manufacturing, which is the most effective, highest performance approach to manufacturing today. Specifically, we help our clients improve their delivery, cost, and quality performance, by identifying opportunities, contributing ideas, providing training, and guiding employees through implementation. As improvements in material flows, operator job designs, and processes materialize, operators find their workplace safer and their jobs both richer and more secure. The company's stronger competitive position means that there is more work to do, but it has more variety, it is conducted at a steady but sustainable pace, and operators participate in its design.

Since we started in the '80s, many names for this approach have come and gone. What started out as the Toyota Production System became JIT, lean manufacturing, lean manufacturing, demand-flow technology, etc. The continuing relevance of the same concepts under these different labels is a testimonial to their soundness and their power. In the past few years, American industry as a whole has begun to see the value and the potential of lean manufacturing, and many new consultants have appeared offering help, most commonly on the basis of a successful implementation in a company where they were employed.

Today, manufacturers no longer need missionaries to tell them why they should become lean, but advisers and teachers who can show them how to do it. It is no longer enough to know what the components of lean manufacturing are. To be effective, consultants need to know how to adapt them to the specifics of each plant, and understand the implementation sequence that matches its technical and managerial dynamics. It is not enough to know the rules of the game; you also have to know how to play it.

As our name indicates, we address both the management and the technical issues of lean manufacturing. We focus on the shop floor first, and work our way up to management issues. We have an engineering background and have participated in this effort for many years, learning in Japan and implementing in many locations, in the US, Europe, and South America. The philosophy we have developed on this basis differs from that of many of our colleagues in the consulting business, who are no sooner exposed to lean manufacturing that they want to apply its concepts outside of manufacturing, in the office, in insurance or in airline operations. Instead, we are focused on manufacturing, and will remain so even after all the benefits of lean manufacturing have been reaped. While most of our work requires us to be on site, walking the shop floor with our clients, we are also actively searching for ways to use technology -- and in particular the web -- to help them better.

Our values

We are a small group with low overhead and, as a result, not under pressure for billability. As a rule, we limit our paid engagements because we find that we need free time to hone our skills through independent research that keeps us up to speed on the most effective methods and technology. Also because we are a small group, the members our clients interact with before bringing us in are the same who come to do the work afterwards. We do not have groups of junior associates to send in our place.

We are not stingy with our time or our ideas. We do not believe in holding back. We do not sell ideas but our ability to generate them. Between visits to clients, we support them as best we can by phone, FAX or e-mail, and free of charge unless the request is a major project. While at client sites, we are on the floor at any time of the day or night as needed to interact with employees working on projects.

We charge by the day for our time at client sites, and if our clients make $10 for each $1 they spend on us, more power to them! That is the way we want it to be, and that is what keeps us in business. We like simple business arrangements, and this one qualifies; charging for a percentage of savings does not. We find that simple business relationships are most conducive to clear expectations and satisfaction on both sides.

While we tailor our recommendations to each factory's situation, we make the calls as we see them. Clients pay us to say what we think and not necessarily what they want to hear. A relationship with a consultant should be like that with a medical doctor or a lawyer. As long as they trust our judgment, they should follow our advice; the minute they doubt us, we should go.

Working with people

Some of the other consultants in the field that we most respect are Toyota alumni who have worked directly Taiichi Ohno or Shigeo Shingo. Their approach to consulting, although effective in many cases, has earned them the nickname of "insultants." While contrary to the generally accepted management theory on working with people, management by verbal abuse has its successful adherents in this country and in Europe as well as in Japan.

We were never comfortable with this approach and felt that we could be at least as effective treating our client's managers, engineers and operators with courtesy and respect. What we find among our client employees is a hunger for understanding that we try to satisfy. Under pressure, they will implement methods they don't understand, but they will never feel comfortable about it. Although many of the concepts of lean manufacturing can only be truly understood by experiencing them through implementation, we believe in supplementing this up front by rational explanations, which experience then confirms. As stated above, having a gentler bedside manner does not mean that we compromise on content.

We want the changes we bring about in our clients' plants to take root and endure past the end of our involvement. With this goal in mind, we believe that improvement projects should be owned and run by the line managers in charge of the affected areas, that they should incorporate ideas from shop floor personnel wherever possible, and that detailed technical issues should be resolved by client engineers supporting the project managers. We make recommendations, provide technical information, review design proposals and answer questions, but we do not assume ownership of the projects or carry out project tasks except as examples for illustration purposes.

We come for short visits at periodic intervals, allowing project teams in between to assimilate our input and move forward on their own. We have found that our being on site too often led client personnel to perceive the projects as ours rather than theirs, and to treat us as a temporary extension of the engineering department. When this happens, projects appear to move forward efficiently, but without any transfer of know-how, and the organization inexorably reverts back to its old ways when we leave.

The basis for our recommendations

We have methods in our work, but we don't have a rigid 12-step methodology to apply to every factory. Our focus is on our clients' business results, not on process conformance. Like everyone, we use lists to jog our memory, but we do not believe in "checklist audits," formally rating a plant by check marks or points on its technical and managerial practices. A company can do everything “right” according to such a standard and still go bankrupt, while a more open-minded competitor prospers.

Our recommendations for an improvement plan are based on the client’s business strategy and on an analysis of the company’s position within its supply chain, its process capabilities, equipment capacities, material flow patterns, quality practices, production control methods, and organization structure. Then, as projects move forward, we encourage clients to measure their impact on their key business metrics.

Not every practice from the automobile industry is applicable everywhere else. Every industry requires adaptation and the development of new concepts, but it doesn't mean that a plant manager can cherry-pick some parts of lean manufacturing while ignoring others. There are subtle dependencies between, for example, shop floor layout, production control, and human resource management that cannot be ignored when deciding which projects to undertake and in what sequence.