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Thinking About Sustainability

We need more thinking, especially if we are to address waste, not merely the waste that occurs in manufacturing operations, but in the whole product development cycle, from ideation to execution.

As I thought about “sustainable manufacturing”—actually, sustainability overall—for this issue, it occurred to me that while this has become something that is both trendy and essential (trendy in that companies like to boast of their “green” credentials; essential in that for both economic and regulatory reasons, companies can no longer waste resources), it really goes back a bit to something that isn’t heard about much anymore: the Toyota Production System. Everybody knows about it, right? Sure, and everyone is committed first and foremost to quality in  everything they do (just don’t think about the recalls that are  occurring with such regularity that the announcements have taken on the startling nature of droning white noise).


I found a copy of The Shingo  Production Management System  by Shigeo Shingo, published in 1992 (now evidently out of print, though other titles by the remarkable industrial engineer are available from Taylor & Francis [taylorandfrancis.com]) on my bookshelf. And I began looking at some of his observations about muda, or waste.

Let me quote a passage from that book which provides a sense of how Shingo was no-nonsense, how he cut to the chase—and cut to the quick: “I once gave a talk in an industrial  zone of Osaka to people from about 80 firms affiliated with Company A. I remarked to Mr. K, the president of the host company, that all the people in his firm were idiots.

“‘What do you mean?’ he replied indignantly. ‘I’m not one to boast, but they’re all top-notch people.’

“‘If that’s the case, then why do you have the slogan ‘Get Rid of Waste!’ framed and hanging on 
your office wall?’ I asked. ‘I assume  it must be because your people know where waste is but they don’t do anything about getting  rid of it.’

“Mr K was silent.

“‘Once waste is identified, everybody wants to get rid of it,’ I went on. ‘So shouldn’t your slogan be ‘Find Waste!’ instead?’”

As Shingo went on to observe, “The trick is to find waste, or muda. We need to question the status quo by constantly asking ‘why?’—even when we aren’t aware of any problems. After all, the most damaging kind of waste is the waste we don’t recognize.”

This, I think, is something that gets too readily overlooked by companies, even companies that tout their varying levels of ecofriendliness. Everyone gets the obvious. It is the less overt that needs to be ferreted out and addressed.

The Toyota Production System identifies seven kinds of waste:
1. Overproduction
2. Delay
3. Transport
4. Processing
5. Inventory
6. Wasted motion
7. Making defective products

While OEMs and suppliers alike have, generally speaking, become pretty good at addressing some of these—by necessity, if for no other reason (e.g., as a consequence of the Great Recession, there aren’t a whole lot of companies that can afford to carry too much in the way of inventory, to say nothing of having the wherewithal to over-produce)—there are still some areas where there needs to be improvement (as in the aforementioned recalls, which is waste #7).

In another title from Shingo, The Sayings of Shigeo Shingo (Productivity Press, 1987), he writes, “Perceiving means recognizing phenomena by means of our five senses. Thinking, on the other hand,  is our mental ability to pursue causes and purposes by objectively asking ‘why’ about all phenomena.”

He explains the difference with a vignette involving a foreman and a plant manager and a defective safety part. The foreman goes in to  the manager’s office with the bad part and asks what he should do. The manager tells him that if it happens again, he should bring in  the bad part. A week later, the foreman shows up again with another  defective part. “But when the manager asks him about the conditions under which the defect occurred, the  foreman stammers incoherently.” So the manager tells the foreman, again, that if a bad part shows up, to bring it to him. Ten days later, it  happens. But this time, the foreman  tells the manager what caused the  defect and what countermeasure was taken. Explains Shingo, “The first two times, the foreman merely perceived that a defect had occurred.  The third time, having understood what the manager had in mind”— remember, the manager asked about  the conditions—“he thought about why the defect might have occurred.”

It’s not that we need less perceiving. But we need more thinking, especially if we are to address waste, not merely the waste that occurs in manufacturing operations, but in the whole product development cycle, from ideation to execution. We need to ask why? a whole lot more than we probably do. Shingo identifies five times (presumably this is a minimum):

1. “Why do we need this object?
2. Why do we require this subject?
3. Why use this kind of method?
4. Why this kind of space?
5. Why this kind of time?” 

While these particular whys are addressed by Shingo at the “five  elements of production,” or “5W1H,”— “1. What? (object), 2. Who? (subject), 3. How? (method), 4. Where? (space), 5. When? (time), 6. Why?”— again it seems clear that if we are to pursue sustainability in what we do, regardless of where we are in the product development cycle, regardless of what it is that we produce, then these are things that we need to address in all activities that we pursue. We need to think, not just perceive. Otherwise, we might be like those idiots that Shingo identified.

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