The Mean Side of "Lean"

... from the MasteringProjectWork Yahoo Discussion Group:

Reading through the management journal summaries in the Economist today, I came across mention of this piece, The Darker Side of Lean, written by an American who worked inside one of Toyota's divisions for three years. Smells interesting.

Link Here

I'm really quite interested in how work feels, and how that feeling matches how one is supposed to feel. I suspect that a lot of anecdotal reporting about work experience is colored by how it's supposed to feel. Just reading a book (Stumbling On Happiness) that explains why this is the case. Something about our internal wiring.

I've skimmed through this piece (I did pop for the purchase price), and I'm moved by the differences between Japanese and American culture which explain how we might interpret how it's supposed to be for how it really is. This reminds me of my "world citizen" daughter returning from a year in Chile to report that she met no one there who ever said "No!". She had to learn layers of subtle cues to properly interpret the many shades of "Yes!" she received, and politely withdraw a request when the internal sensors interpreted a "yes" as really meaning "no". Most of the people she met there thought that she was nice, but sporadically thoughtless. ... ... and insensitive.

I suspect I'll have more comments after I read between the lines.


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Okay, I've read and considered.

This piece was written by an engineer who worked three years inside one of the Toyota subcontractors, who sole-supply to Toyota. Toyota, according to this author, doesn't innovate well, so they acquire innovations, bringing small operations into exclusive conglomerate relationships. As the author says, while Toyota does have smart and innovative engineers, their engineering isn't smart or innovative, but usually out-sourced.

The author suggests that the real story behind the Toyota miracle has more to do with Taylorism than with any human-infused collaboration. How could the many observers have reported otherwise? He claims that they spoke with the wrong people and that they failed to understand some fundamental facts about Japanese culture. There's what you're supposed to say and then there's how you feel.

It's considered rude in Japan, for instance, when a barber asks how your haircut looks, to say anything but that it looks terrific. It's permissible to complain endlessly in the barber's absence and to choose to never return to him again, but in his presence, honest feedback is determined by what one is supposed to say, not by what one wants to say.

Ramp this same ethic up into a more complex social context. On the manufacturing line, individuals claim responsibility for injuries the working conditions cause. To do otherwise would be "wrong." Individuals who are injured wait until their shift ends (some shifts run 36 hours during periods of extreme duress) so they can check themselves into the hospital because if they are injured on the job, their company will have to pay for their medical care. This would be wrong.

When an outsider asks how things are done, it is considered only proper to explain the way things are supposed to have been done, not the way they actually happen. The Lean principles might represent fine principles, but Toyota has little experience in actually implementing them---and they have had little influence on their success.

That's a pretty extreme statement. Two examples. Just-In-Time inventory control has contributed to both a dramatic reduction in inventory expense, but it has also served to increase the speed of the manufacturing line, causing a dramatic increase in worker injuries. The one didn't have to translate into the other, but management (not the workers, who consider the Kaizen meetings- which happen after work- opportunities to smoke while their bosses tell them how it is and how its going to be) has designed workflow so that 58 seconds of every minute is required to complete each work stage. (Some exceed that.) One physician who has studied workers at Toyota plants for over 30 years claims that more than 50% of Toyota's workers suffer from work-related injuries, but continue to work anyway.

Pull Manufacturing, where anyone on the line can stop the line if a quality defect is identified. In fact there are three states of the line. Green means everything flowing, yellow means someone's falling a little behind (this will usually get one extra person to assist, and a chewing out from management later), and red, which means there's no freaking way I can get this thing resolved in the three minutes the process line allows. This brings an emergency team, who helps pull the offending piece off the line, so the line can be started immediately again. If you're a guest worker, calling a red alert, even reporting an injury, guarantees that your contract won't be renewed. You're heading home.

The author reports on just how little collaboration occurs. Individuals might be expected to perform more than one job, but the speed of the line demands that most work as individuals or in small, very insular teams. Rather than group problem-solving, management encourages competition between groups, which encourages individuals to not help other groups. In fact, helping other groups can get you hassled. The open working environment means there is no privacy. There are rules for everything- formal, written rules, informal, unwritten rules, and cultural rules which everyone is just supposed to know. Violate a rule and a bully, who is one of the manager's "good old boys" will publicly harass you, intending to humiliate you into obeying in the future. The harassment might continue for a long time, especially if you are the type to be easily embarrassed.

The author learned that the dominant problem-solving method employed is induction, not deduction. He found this difficult, because as a US-trained engineer, he naturally worked first to identify principles, then deduce design. Toyota starts by getting examples of what everyone else has done, then refines those into their own. What the boss says, goes. In design meetings, he noticed that no matter how long a subordinate might argue their point, the choice always, always, always went the way the boss had proposed at the start of the argument. he says that the bosses are smart, so this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's not group problem-solving and breeds timidity in otherwise innovation-capable professionals.

He tries hard to distinguish between cultural norms and work effectiveness. And I think he succeeds. Bottom line, the Lean story doesn't match the day-to-day practices at Toyota. This could be good news, an opportunity for someone else to compete effectively. While Toyota can't credibly claim that their "way" causes their success, someone actually implementing the practices in ways that more fully acknowledge the humanity involved could best them, unless Taylor was right.

I don't think Taylor was right. I know practitioners here who have taken lean principles and used them as they mistakenly believed they were intended to amplify human satisfaction and output capacity. Lessons the authors of the theory might well take to heart.

The reasons behind the Japanese manufacturing miracle might be myth, a public-relations campaign which reinforces some cultural prejudices of our own. (Those clever little devils!) Seems in practice they are mere window-dressing hiding some same old sweat shop shit. I remember conducting a workshop for the US subsidiary of a huge Japanese electronics firm. The major complaint of the US engineers was that their Japanese counterparts would not think or act outside of some invisible box. As an example, when the visiting Japanese engineers learned that they had been invited to a people-centered (as opposed to a process-oriented) workshop about improving project work, every one of them found a reason to both enthusiastically accept the invitation, then get called away on urgent business the morning of the workshop. That's how innovation and humanity works there.

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