Lean manufacturing: Time for a new name?

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The economic recovery seems to have spawned a renewed focus on lean manufacturing. In addition to a recent flurry of articles, we’ve also been hearing it more in our conversations with small and mid-size manufacturers. Generally they talk about “lean” as they describe the steps they’re taking to return their own organizations to a position of strength.

While some companies appear to be using the term as a shorthand way of saying, “We’re growing cautiously,” or “We’re making sure the demand is there before we manufacture,” lean manufacturing does have a specific definition.

In Why Call It ‘Lean Manufacturing’? in Industry Week, Rick Bohan argues that the concept is a worthy one, but the label is badly chosen. His main concern is that, in the minds of the people expected to implement lean practices, the term “lean” has a number of negative connotations (most significantly that cutting costs = cutting people and efficiencies = working longer and harder with nothing in return). Although he believes that “lean manufacturing is an approach for reducing the frustrations [employees] routinely experience as they move material, information and product through the plant,” lean’s reputation creates resistance among those who most need to embrace it. Bohan acknowledges that renaming lean manufacturing at this point is not realistic, but urges people to find new ways to communicate its key concepts, practices and promises.

What do you think? What does lean mean to you? Has your perspective changed as the economic climate has changed? Does lean have a place in your organization?

For more of Rick Bohan’s views on the subject, read the article in Industry Week.

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