Lean Manufacturing? Fat Chance!

That has been the view of MEECO's workers, who detest change the way a saint abhors sin. Still, despite the pain, we're making progress

By Lisa Bergson

"Thank you." De'Shell mouthed the words as I walked by her office. I had just relieved her of her duties as acting operations manager, but I never expected her to leave. She had the opportunity to return to her old job as manufacturing engineer, with no reduction in salary -- a sweet deal. But, apparently, her outlook had soured.

Readers of past columns may recall the sad saga of progressive, change-oriented production managers at MEECO. Only the do-nothings seem to win the support of my troops on the floor, who abhor any break from routine. (This came as quite a shock almost 20 years ago, when I first took over my father's business. I couldn't wait to free the workers from their time clocks and release them from the shackles of repetitive jobs. But, factory workers, like farmers, must be among the most conservative folks around. No wonder Marx failed!)

Trying to implement change in our factory, in the guise of so-called Lean Manufacturing concept, on top of all De'Shell's other duties, was simply too much for any one person -- as I should have known it would be. Lean is a commonsense approach to mapping out a work process for identifying bottlenecks and implementing solutions. Done well, a more efficient, cleaner, more compact, cross-trained, and profitable organization results. Our consultant's proposal promised to "minimize material handling and to increase the velocity of the manufactured product through the transformation processes."


  A talented, successful, and capable young engineer, De'Shell was well liked at MEECO. That is until she hesitantly accepted my offer to manage production and service. "It doesn't matter whether it's good or bad -- they just don't like it," Donna Callahan, our sales & service coordinator, told me. (She just got an "A" for her term paper entitled "Lean Manufacturing in a Small Company.")

By now, so many employees at so many companies have been through the Dilbertian parade of management fads, usually touted by some executive consultant, that cynicism prevails. As one recent job interviewee -- a woman I hope to hire -- put it: "It's the program of the month: TQM [Total Quality Management] died off, and we're into the next alphabet." Her honesty helped me see what's going on with my people.

It's as though, if they hunker down long enough, the whole thing will just blow over, the latest managerial tornado. They dutifully attend the weekly meetings conducted by Frank Garcia, a consultant for the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center (DVIRC). But very little seems to happen. In part, I hold Frank accountable, for not imposing deadlines, assigning duties, and holding individuals to task. "You have to nail them," I admonished. "Otherwise nothing will ever get done."

Since De'Shell left, I've tried to find time to attend Frank's meetings and show support. "I don't care whether De'Shell's here or Frank's here, this is how we're going to do business," I growled on my first such occasion. (At times, I channel my father, who could be quite forceful.) "They heard you," Frank said to me a week later, noting that, finally, we are seeing some follow-up between meetings.


  Ultimately, the attempts De'Shell and I made to shove Lean down folk's throats produced no answer. I now realize that our mismanagement, compounded by the factory floor's misunderstanding, got Lean off to a bad start at MEECO. After interviewing several department heads and managers for her paper, Donna concluded that instead of converting to a lean machine, our production floor became a mean machine. The employees blame Lean for problems it either doesn't address, like personality clashes, or for problem areas where we've yet to implement the concept, such as purchasing and inventory control.

"Lean 101", the DVIRC's one-day, eight-hour, plantwide orientation session clearly was not enough. "The company as a whole must understand the culture of Lean before it employs these tools," Donna wrote. "This is what I feel is holding MEECO back." Yes, they're a tough lot on the floor. But, without their buy-in, we'll never get there. It's up to De'Shell's replacement and me not just to give orders, but to enlighten and inspire. Thank you, Donna.

Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com

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