Embracing complexity: Lean manufacturing today

Applying Lean principles to the complex workplaces of today requires an updating of its mantra and refocussing the methodology to account for the people in the workplace.

Aristoltle is often attributed as being the first to declare that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In the 2000 years since the Greek philosopher put these words together, the idea has become a taken for granted turn of phrase. In the 1980s, however, this simple maxim garnered some in-depth thinking, via the Santa Fe institute in New Mexico. Assembled there were a number of Nobel Prize winning scientists who founded the theory of complex systems.

Understanding that the world is comprised of networks and organisations that cannot be fully understood by being broken down into their parts, the researchers have inspired a new way of looking at the world; taking Aristotle’s phrase and applying it to the world at large.

In many ways, Barry McCarthy, treasurer of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME), is putting that theory into practice. McCarthy is applying complex systems theory and its associated understanding of emergence – the properties that are the result of complex systems – to the workplace, and manufacturing into particular. Understanding that the emergent properties of complex systems cannot be predicted, McCarthy suggests that, “what we have to do is develop systems in the workplace that can actually handle complexity”.

Until the adoption of complex systems theory, workplaces were broken down into their individual parts. As the pace of both social and technological change speeds up, it is becoming increasingly impossible to account for a system’s properties in this method, according to McCarthy.

“What a lot of people are trying to do at the moment is combat complexity with simplicity and it’s just not working. What we want to try and do is make a really responsive workforce that can respond to all of the complexities and challenges that are thrown at them and they can deal with them. We can’t do that if we don’t engage our team members and our workers and make them really good problem solvers,” said McCarthy.

Taking the principles of Lean manufacturing and applying them to the people in a manufacturing workplace, McCarthy has updated the tenets of the process management system first utilised by Toyota in the mid 20th century.

“The focus of Lean manufacturing has been very much on continuous improvement, or slimming businesses down, and I think a truer interpretation is to get people involved and make it more people centric.”

Sharing the new interpretation of Lean theory, which has lost its singular emphasis on manufacturing, McCarthy will lead a series of workshops held by the AME around the country, the first being on Monday, August 26 in Melbourne.

“The interpretation we’re trying to take at the moment in this second wave of Lean is to make it about taking stress out of people’s work,” said McCarthy.

Updating Lean for the modern workplace
Lean manufacturing, which was first implemented by Toyota and known as the Toyota Production System, was all about reducing waste and non-value adding activities. This lead to Lean becoming synonymous with the concept of just-in-time production, where stock levels were kept low and delays in production minimal. While this made some companies, that adopted these principles extremely successful, McCarthy, who studied these concepts when working for Toyota, noted how this thinking left out the people who were doing the work.

“These kinds of concepts of leaning a business down tend to add stress in their current form, so we’re trying to put out really good processes at work. We can make work a lot more enjoyable if we take the stress out of it,” said McCarthy.

Taking the principles of Lean and adapting them to the interactions between humans, McCarthy and others have found that just like on a production line or in a supply chain, there are wastes in the exchanges between people that make up much of work life.

“You find yourself getting into the flow of work and then a piece of data or information is missing and then you have to go looking for it, or you have to go and ring someone up because they’re not supplying you with everything you need to get the job done.

“I reckon if you really looked at your own job, or jobs that you’ve had in the past, there’s so much waste built into having to get permissions and waiting for decisions, that just seem basic to you,” said McCarthy.

Describing the ways to remove these wastes in teams or groups, McCarthy advocates for individual works to be given judgement points and trusted with the responsibility to make decisions on your own, after they’ve been equipped with the knowledge and expertise required through training.

“If we can empower team members to have the information ready for them when they want to do their work, then that eliminates that waste,” summarised McCarthy.

In offices these wastes can be invisible, as they are the conversations and delays that are not visualised in a spread sheet of inventory levels or lead times.

Similarly, on the shop floor or on a production line, stoppages can result from needing a decision to be made by someone in the chain of command. Awaiting approvals can slow down a workflow, and result in strains and stressors.

McCarthy has continued his connection with Toyota, and often takes executives from Australia and the US to view Toyota’s plant in Japan. While in the past this was to demonstrate the Lean manufacturing capabilities of the production line, more recently the focus has shifted to what’s going on inside the brains of those involved in assembly.

“If you watch an automotive production line, you’ll see the cars going down, one every 30 seconds or so. A lot of people walk in and say ‘That’s very repetitive work. The people that are doing it must be brain dead.’ In fact, it’s the actual opposite because they’ve got high variation in their work and so every 30 seconds, they may be doing a different pattern of work,” said McCarthy.

With a happy and productive workplace as the ultimate goal, McCarthy has augmented the ideas of Lean manufacturing with the values of positive psychology, which argues that when people find their work enjoyable through variation and by playing to their talents, you can find a person’s “flow”. McCarthy argues that similar to tennis players who can carry a rally, there is a positive emotional benefit to being in sync and engaged.

“Where we were looking in the past at parts flow, what we’re looking at now is flow in people’s work, not only in the production environment but also in the office environment,” said McCarthy.

Go with the “flow”
Finding techniques to visualise or solidify the people-to-people wastes will be the focus of each of the workshops that AME will host.

Although in the past these techniques were imparted at AME’s annual conference, the newer workshop format is about getting participants to find applicable situations that they can bring back to their own workplace.

“We’re moving more towards the workshop format so that people can get a bit more practical and hands on,” said McCarthy. “We can give them real examples and scenarios to work in and we can point out the theory by getting them to do exercises and simulations.”

During the day-long workshops, attendees will be encouraged to think about the ways that their jobs and those of their teams are crafted so that work can be designed to promote a sense of flow across an entire organisation. The program is designed with the idea that applying these principles will encourage businesses to think about how they are going to respond to the changes to work that are on the horizon.

“What’s commonly thought is that it’s the workers that have to constantly change what they do by having different roles with technology. What we’re not appreciating is that managers need to have a good shake up as well and change the way they work,” said McCarthy.

From McCarthy’s perspective, the roles that humans will play in a future where automation and AI has a greater role in the workplace will undoubtedly change, and by empowering humans to use their innately unique capacities, workplaces can remain happy and productive.

“The difference that humanity has is that we have thinking capabilities. In a lot of our workplaces, we don’t engage people to think, we just tell them, ‘Do what you’re told and get your work done’.

“We have to be able to say to them, ‘We really appreciate your thinking, you’re close to the action, you have to make decisions because you’ll know more about the processes in many cases than a manager or a supervisor’. What happens then is it allows people to engage their entire mind and body and they’ll have a better environment to work in,” said McCarthy.

While empowering individuals across the organisation to be responsible and make decisions may seem like a radical shift, McCarthy argues that was is required is simply breaking down the choke points, just as Lean Manufacturing recommended back in the 20th century.

“A lot of management is controlled by what’s in the manager’s head and everything has to go through that and that’s the bottle neck. If we can take those rules out of their head, put it into the workplace and embed it in the workplace, the workers don’t have to go to the bottle neck,” said McCarthy.

Creating a workplace that can be flexible to respond to the challenges that arise through the increasing complexity of the modern work of work, requires thinking laterally.

“If we can do that then we’ll always have a competitive advantage against the replacement of workers by AI,” said McCarthy. “We’ve got to get smarter about how we work, not work harder.”

McCarthy will be hosting Lean Learning Days on October 15 in Brisbane and December 10 in Melbourne. For more information events visit www.ame.org.au or call 1300 AME AUS or email ame@ame.org.au.