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Case Study: How Lean Manufacturing Failed

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Chris A. Ortiz provides a great example of an organization that struggled to implement lean manufacturing but did not experience the desired success.
This chapter is from the book

Adopting lean manufacturing is a journey. Sometimes, even the terminology is confusing, including a phrase in the title of this book: lean implementation. The best way to clarify is to say that a lean journey has multiple lean implementations that take place throughout an organization. But no matter how we phrase it, lean implementations can fail, bringing the journey to a halt. Throughout this book I discuss a variety of challenges and common failures in implementing lean manufacturing. I hope my experience will help you get a firmer grasp on what not to do and also will provide guidance for your lean journey.

My career has taken me all over the United States, and I have had the opportunity to meet many professional people and to work with numerous organizations. Each of them experienced successes, as well as challenges, when embarking upon their lean journeys. This chapter tells the story of a heating and air conditioning company in the Southeastern United States that I will call X-Corp.

This company began its lean journey with a lot of enthusiasm. It hired multiple consultants and trainers and scheduled and conducted numerous events, investing much time and money in the effort. This story isn’t an attempt to downplay X-Corp’s hard work, its commitment to its employees, or its contributions to its community. It is simply a great example of an organization that struggled to implement lean manufacturing but did not experience the desired success.

Gung Ho!

Before starting Kaizen Assembly, my lean manufacturing training and consulting company, I held a variety of positions in the lean field: lean engineer, kaizen coordinator, and corporate lean champion, to name a few. I was involved with lean manufacturing for approximately four years when I was hired at X-Corp as a senior lean manufacturing engineer.

X-Corp embarked on its lean journey in early 2002. I came on board as a permanent employee in January, intending to be one of the organization’s main drivers of lean manufacturing. The company had a new plant manager who had a strong desire to implement lean on the production floor. Having a strong background in continuous improvement, naturally I was delighted at the prospect of working with him. He scheduled a meeting for late February to discuss the schedule for the year with upper management. I was invited to the meeting because I was the lead lean engineer on the upcoming projects. X-Corp had also hired a lean consulting firm to help with the journey.

Most of the managers in the room were not aware of lean and appeared to be confused about the goals that were being presented. The plant manager explained that the consulting firm would send its top advisers to the plant during the weeks we were to have kaizen events (improvement projects). I believe that X-Corp paid the firm approximately $12,000 per kaizen event. In addition, X-Corp planned to invest in a series of training sessions that taught value stream mapping, time studies, and visual management (covered in a moment). The training was to be completed before the first kaizen event. With these measures in place, it appeared that X-Corp was moving in the right direction: setting the vision, training the workers, and then implementing. The process was familiar to me, and I totally approved.

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