Jim Womack’s Top Misconceptions of the Lean Movement

This fall marks the 25th anniversary of the Lean movement which continues to revolutionize the manufacturing industry and is now spreading into other industries as well. Jim Womack, former MIT researcher and well-known founder of the Lean movement was a keynote presenter at the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) in Toronto last month.

Womack was introduced by CME president Jayson Meyers, who said he is “someone who has changed the world” by launching the Lean revolution. In response, Womack stated “all I have done is repackage stolen goods, I just tell stories.”

He’s done more than just tell stories though. Womack has authored three books and wrote countless essays regarding Lean. His book titles include:

  • The Machine that Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production
  • Lean Thinking, Lean Solutions
  • Gemba Walks

The growth of Lean over the last 25 years has prompted several non-manufacturing industries to adopt Lean techniques and processes. It’s popularity and progress has actually come as a surprise to Womack.

I’m surprised we’ve made as much progress as we have, with so much misunderstanding of what we [the leading Lean gurus] have been saying.

-Jim Womack

Jim Womack’s top misconceptions of the Lean movement:

Misconception No. 1: “People heard that Lean is a cost-cutting exercise.” Womack wanted to make it clear that the methods his team studied at MIT were geared towards producing more output, with less waste. This was meant to be less time wasted, space, operating costs, capital expenditures, and worker injuries. “People think it’s a headcount reduction system, people heard the less, but they didn’t hear the more,” Womack added.

Misconception No. 2: “People thought it was a book about factories.” Womack felt his first book The Machine that Changed the World, in regards to the Toyota Production System was interpreted to be more about factories than anything else. He went on to point out that his book included chapters on managing customers, how to listen to your market, and running your entire enterprise on Lean principles. “You have to read the other four-fifths of the book,” Womack said if you want to understand that Lean is not just about production.

Misconception No. 3: “Most people think Lean is a within-the-walls activity to fix your company.” In fact, as Womack points out, Lean is at its best when your supply-chain partners team up to reduce inefficiencies and maximize flow as well. “It is impossible for you to get very far when the people in your value stream don’t get any better,” Womack said.

Misconception No. 4: “Lean is an improvement process production can do — management doesn’t have to do anything. Management can ‘check the box’ and move on.” Womack went on to add that lean required continuous co-operation at all levels, with upper management building two-way communications and trust with staff, restructuring to support decision-making at lower levels, shepherding investment in Lean projects, and generally championing Lean initiatives.

Lean isn’t going away, at least not in the foreseeable future, but it is up to those adopting Lean’s methods to truly embrace it’s methodology if they want to have success. There is no reading between the lines with Lean. The proof is in the work laid out by pioneers like Womack and organizations like Toyota who have shown that Lean does equal success.

I am a modest optimist. I think people and societies learn more slowly than they should. In the long-run battle for competitiveness, the winners will be those organizations that get better, faster than anyone else.

-Jim Womack

Information used in portions of this post were from a post on financialpost.com by Rick Spence.

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