The Death of Lean Manufacturing: Self confidence and experience can’t be tracked on a graph–but they make everything possible

I normally don’t cross the streams of my projects but I had an experience recently that was worth sharing, and well heck, it’s Christmas and if I can help a few people today—then why not.  For professional reasons I had to re-read The Machine that Changed the World which was written by three college academics, Don Jones, Dan Ross, and Jim Womack.  I never liked the book even though there are some very good things about business within it.  Instinctively I hated the message of Lean manufacturing—to me it was like a cult—but being in manufacturing in a leadership capacity I obviously had to know as much about Lean manufacturing techniques as possible to talk the language with everyone else.  I needed to re-read the aforementioned book because the project I’m working on requires it heavily so I had to pull the baby out of it while disposing of the bathwater you might say.  To me the elements of that book that are good are guided largely by Mr. Womack and are things I learned instinctively by working really hard for a very long time.  I didn’t need Womack to tell me to decentralize my processes, or to have horizontal management systems.  Or to build as much of a product as close to the same room as every other process to maximize efficiency—or countless other similar things.  I’ve understood those concepts since before that book was written for a 1990s audience.  Rather I am quite certain that Womack and his friends sought to use academia to become part of the manufacturing world for their own self relevance in the late 1980s and that they’ve scammed many businesses into buying in to this Lean concept which was essentially to use common sense techniques sharpened after several decades of mass production methods as a base point, and to unite the world and its governments under a common manufacturing technique which would unleash globalism to the masses.  However, Womack and his academic buddies were wrong—and I’m here to declare that Lean manufacturing is dead—if it were ever alive really in the first place other than selling itself as a Frankenstein monster of copied techniques not really understood for why they worked, but only that they did.  The next method of global manufacturing technique is likely somewhere along the lines of what I presented to my manufacturing team as a Christmas present witnessed below.  It’s a radical idea which I think was always the essence of Lean manufacturing but will be further drawn out by necessity in the future—the role the individual plays in utilizing minimal force for maximum results as a cascading effect of influence which comes from The Power of Positive Thinking. It’s a major metaphysical shift in thought which takes the globalism out of manufacturing and instead recognizes the immense power that an individual plays in the utterances of productive output.  I provided a demonstration using my bullwhip as a metaphor for daily action.

Once I cleared childhood and the natural fears that come from being little in a big world—like loud noises, water, falling and speaking in front of people, I have been fear free most of my conscious life.  I have never been a person who functioned from fear; I never feared authority figures, bullies, or circumstances beyond the horizon of the living world.  And no matter how harsh the world was, I never backed down from it.  In spite of living a very aggressive life I’ve never had a moment of crises where I gave up and turned away.  I’ve certainly wanted to, but I never have had that experience of defeat in the face of a challenge.  I never thought to because nowhere in my mind was anything ever supposed to be easy. I never had that contamination of thought.  Even as I read more books than any contemporary I know, I also understood that such a practice was quite common in the year’s past.  As a young man not yet out of my twenties I took my family to Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello because I thought it was important for them to have that experience in life.  Privately when our guide explained to me that Jefferson’s library started the Library of Congress, and that the former president had read voraciously over 1000 books—I silently endeavored to outdo him.  It was a goal I set for myself, and a lofty one.  In that regard my formal education has never stopped as I now read books like Womack’s for lunch.  I am currently re-reading Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations just because I am sure the message of 2018 will be all about capitalism as the Trump presidency turns it loose once again—and my role in all this is to explain it to people.   I enjoy my role and I love my books—but most of what I know came from the unique circumstances for which I learned to live in the world—and the many hard jobs I have had while being completely fearless about the actions that would come at me from day to day.  Over a twenty year period of my life I did every kind of job imaginable, from cleaning toilets to being a great sales closer.  I worked in every kind of assembly environment and at every level.  And while I was doing all that I became a very respectable bullwhip artist—and in my head all those things do go together.

Having no fear means that I approach things without restrictions of thought.  For instance, the little presentation I did professionally was unique because most in my position would never risk the credibility to their reputation to start with.  What if I had missed that candle, or not delivered my speech correctly?  I could have done more damage than good.  But the most important element to my life that makes me unique and good at what I do is my self confidence.  I never worry about not achieving something because I have enough personal love for what I do and know to trust it.  I have been tested in every way that a human being can be, and fear has tried to work its way into my life for decades, but it has never found an unlocked door for which to color my thoughts with even a single self doubt.  Part of my presentation to those very nice people was to show them that part of what makes people good is that practice and confidence which can deliver them to the promise land of prosperity.  And that it doesn’t always take force, it just takes focus.

What made the Toyota method work in Womack’s analysis which launched the Lean approach to most things business these days, was that the Japanese had a samurai culture which bred this kind of self-confidence, but additionally as people from Asia naturally worked well together in a team setting.  After World War II they were an occupied country dominated by their former enemy, the United States.  So with the same vigor that they kamikazed American ships at sea with a never say die attitude toward conflict, they sought to exploit the weaknesses of American manufacturing’s mass production techniques and applied their own spin built from their ancient warrior codes.  Using the American Deming as a foundation they invented Lean manufacturing as a way to put themselves back on top of the world and recover their losses after the war—and college academics like Womack and his friends saw a vehicle toward globalism for which they could hang their star.  But they all missed the point.   Europe as well never quite understood Lean manufacturing.  They certainly understood the team concept of brothers before stars and all that—but they could not get the idea introduced by the Japanese of lifelong employment starting at the bottom and working your way to the very top—always staying at the same company to preserve the assets in training for which each individual brings to the table.

The next wave of manufacturing philosophy will embody some formal core element for which I shared with my business partners above—and which I share with you today.  It doesn’t matter to me whether or not I am talking to only 150 employees or 30,000, the message of concentrated individual effort is the same—and the trust in themselves to do whatever task is needed.  For my demonstration, putting out the candle in front of a crowd when I have everything to lose and very little to gain was more than a stunt for some Holiday cheer, it was a demonstration in self-confidence that I wished to share for a more profitable 2018.  Nobody who works for me is the type of people I want to be scared when I walk into a room.  I wish for every human being on planet earth the same reality I have—a no fear approach to everything, and if I can get them there with some instruction, I’ll do it every time there is an opportunity. However, the keys to good business is not from formalized education or in methods of team building that ignore that there is no I in team, but there is in win—but that victories large and small come from the individual focused on what they are doing and sprinkle into their productivity a self assuredness that was always in the underbelly of Lean manufacturing.  That confidence never came from a European style chain of command, but from living and being confident in what you do in a microcosm so that the macrocosm was better off for it—and that is the real trick.

Just as I explained that to put a candle out with a bullwhip requires placing the small sonic boom right in front of the flame—a good productive life is just as delicate.  In putting out candles to do it successfully requires many thousands of possible trajectories of movement to get that sonic boom to occur in just the right place. My experience and practice allow me to find that spot quickly and within a few attempts.  When I did my demonstration the way to assure more accuracy would have been to mark on the floor the exact distance from the candle.  But I didn’t do that, nor did I use a targeting fixture for which I was accustomed.  While those things might have given more closer to 100% accuracy, they would have been meaningless for my demonstration.  I simply went down to IKEA for lunch and picked up whatever candle arrangement they had for the Holiday season.  Everything was very spontaneous which forced me to react to those changing circumstances and illicit to my audience the self-confidence it takes to pull off something like that.  Once they had seen me do it, then in their own minds it unlocked the possibilities they likely all thought about—and it was my hope that it didn’t just make them better employees for me, but in every aspect of their lives.  And in that statement is the key to the next generation of manufacturing and all things related to production.

Rich Hoffman

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