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Marginal: Product, Process & Lean

In the '90s, when General Motors started talking more frequently about its then-nascent Global Manufacturing System, I often heard the name "Tom LaSorda" brought up.

In the '90s, when General Motors started talking more frequently about its then-nascent Global Manufacturing System, I often heard the name "Tom LaSorda" brought up. He was then in Eisenach, Germany. He was apparently the wunderkind of lean. GM brought LaSorda back to the U.S. and named him vice president of GM Quality, Reliability and Competitive Operations Implementation. LaSorda left GM and went over to the Chrysler Group. He's now chief operating officer there. When I sat down with him for the central Chrysler piece in this issue, one of the things that I asked him about was lean. Yes, he said, it is important in manufacturing operations. But he went on to say that so far as he is concerned, "lean" is "all about a mindset of leadership rather than a technical term." It is a matter of the way that one thinks about things, like whether there's waste or value. And that lean is important for managers and executives. Not just Manufacturing. Unfortunately, all too often people equate "lean" with "Toyota Production System," and they diminish its importance and relevance thinking (1) they don't work for Toyota and (2) they are executives or engineers and not in Production.

This becomes all the more clear in a valuable collection of pieces from its Lean Manufacturing Advisor that the Productivity Press has published as Insights on Implementation: The Lean Office—Collected Practices and Cases ($15). This book provides examples of lean as practiced by things as diverse as the Canadian postal system, a designer and builder of commercial post-frame buildings, and a restaurant. (Delphi is included—but the focus is not on its Shingo Award-winning factories. As its Robert Morgan says in the piece that focuses on people, not plants, "The Toyota Way is not a shop floor way. It's actually a complete way of thinking about your business, your leadership, the way in which you develop people within your business." Remind you of something?)

One of the most pertinent points for the present discussion relates to a piece in the book describing the IT services offered by Fujitsu. In relation to the fact that he has a PowerPoint presentation that is essentially about a lean process for IT services but the word "lean" isn't in it, Steve Parry, a Fujitsu executive is quoted as saying, "The problem with 'lean' is that it has some connotations'. . . People associate lean with manufacturing, and what most people have as a concept of manufacturing is a lot of people in a factory producing things." This is not to say that lean isn't about people in factories producing things, but that it has applicability well beyond the factory floor.

There are two parts to a successful manufacturing company: product and process. The thing that it makes and how it makes it. This is true whether it is a component or a vehicle, a building or a meal. Unless it is a great product—one that customers value—then it doesn't matter how efficient or effective one is in creating that product. A great product is right, something that is, perhaps, indescribable but recognizable. It is something complete without things that are extraneous. An example of this is the iPod: certainly not the first digital music player, but the one that has seized the imagination (and dollars, Euros, yen, etc.) of people around the world. Having efficient manufacturing allows it to be priced in an accessible manner. Product and process. Both. Not either. Want to know why Chrysler is so successful? That's why. 

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