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Bruce Hamilton


Traditional Lean?

Never forget the people-centric basics of the process

Published: Monday, June 13, 2016 - 12:28

Twice in the last month I’ve heard the phrase “traditional lean” used in public presentations. In neither case did the presenter explain the expression, but one displayed a slide with a Venn diagram showing the overlap between lean and Six Sigma.

I suppose this means that he defined traditional lean as meaning lean plus something else, in his case, Six Sigma. For both presenters, however, the word “traditional” implied “passé.” They were moving on.

Lean, or LeanSigma, if you prefer that definition of “traditional,” was a dated process in need of enhancement or even replacement. In the 1980s, I referred to lean and Six Sigma, respectively, as Toyota Production System (TPS) and quality control tools. Each was derived in part from W. Edwards Deming’s post-World War II reconstruction efforts in Japan. In that pre-lean era, there was little literature about TPS and few consultants. Being one of those folks old enough to remember when there was neither lean nor Six Sigma—at least in name—I find this latest buzzification of lean to “traditional lean” amusing. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve been encouraged to employ alternative approaches to productivity improvement.

By 1985, when U.S. manufacturing was reeling from declining market dominance, a Harvard Business Review article entitled “MRP, JIT, OPT, FMS” began what has since become a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms each describing a supposed elixir to the problems of rising costs and disappearing customers. The article is worth a read, if only from the standpoint of showing how focused we were at the time on better methods for scheduling production and reducing inventories.

Just-in-time production was the popular surrogate for TPS in the mid-1980s, often juxtaposed with material requirements planning. Back then, the pejorative “traditional” adjective was used to describe push-production of which material requirements planning, a network scheduling system, was a part; we called it “traditional manufacturing.”

The theory of flexible manufacturing systems was a techno alternative to TPS that proposed superior flexibility through use of robotics and automation to move material and information through the factory. In a notorious example of flexible manufacturing systems during the 1980s, General Motors attempted to create fully automated facilities. All told, GM spent $90 billion (yes, billion) to “modernize” its operations. Although TPS sought to elevate employees, GM tried to automate them out of the picture. Ultimately, GM’s lights-out, people-less plants were deemed unworkable and were mothballed.

Optimized production technology was another alternative to TPS from Eliyahu Goldratt that was meant to develop a computer-assisted queuing model that scheduled around bottlenecks. After taking a couple of Goldratt’s classes in the late 1980s, I decided that if I could actually define all of the parameters needed to run optimized production technology, I would know so much about my plant that I wouldn’t need any software to schedule around bottlenecks. I’ve always been an Eli Goldratt fan, but this particular TPS alternative, like material requirements planning and flexible manufacturing systems, was yet another software/technology solution to a problem that went far deeper than automation of information and material flow. Interestingly, all of the alternatives to TPS noted in the Harvard Business Review article proposed information and production automation as viable solutions to flagging productivity and competitiveness. Even TPS was thought to be only a scheduling model.

In the 1990s, along with the rebrand of TPS as lean, came more techno solutions: Agile manufacturing, boasted Lee Iacocca at Chrysler, would “leapfrog” lean. Agile, described at the time as the next step “beyond lean,” promised faster response and greater flexibility through a combination of IT integration and physical re-organization. It was big on concept but light on details. At the same time, Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, popularized yet another improvement method, Six Sigma, which was first presented as an alternative to lean. Later, through the marketing genius of a large consulting firm, it was mashed into LeanSigma. The mid-1990s also brought us business process reengineering, an IT-driven methodology aimed at radical process change. This top-down change method had a dehumanizing effect on organizations—a condition that many understand today is a major deterrent to continuous improvement.

And all of these software-assisted tools can be rolled into one mother acronym, ERP (for enterprise resource planning), which is material requirements planning plus all of the above except TPS. Readers of one my recent posts will recall ERP referenced as “the granddaddy of excuses” for not spending time on continuous improvement.

So what does all of this have to do with “traditional lean?” Here’s my take: Over the last three decades, organizations have spent too much time searching for technical alternatives or supplements to lean without first understanding lean basics. I’ve listed just a few of these experiments: material requirements planning, flexible manufacturing systems, optimized production technology, Agile, business process reengineering, Six Sigma, and ERP. Perhaps you can add some others. Although there may be merit to some of the thinking behind each of these concepts, they have unfortunately diverted attention and resources away from the hard work of learning people-centric TPS. I think “traditional lean” is TPS. It’s what lean was before we consultants got our mitts into it. Call me a TPS ideologue; I’m good with that.

Do you agree or disagree? Share a thought.


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.


Traditional Lean?

Bravo, Bruce! Before consultants there was TPS and before TPS there was Deming (and Shewhart and Juran). He still has the answers. Organisations who truly want to be effective and efficient will eschew the flavour of the month (or decade) and pursue the tried and true.