How to Avoid the 5 Biggest Lean Pitfalls

Lean success takes more than doing things right. "It is also about avoiding pitfalls that can lead to failure," says Jamie Flinchbaugh, partner in the Lean Learning Center (Novi, MI) and author of ASSEMBLY magazine's monthly "Leading Lean" column. "Leaders must always be on the lookout for signs of lean failure, which can occur at any point in the lean transformation process."

Flinchbaugh will be participating in the Lean Barrier Busting session at this year's Assembly Technology Expo in Rosemont, IL. The 3-hour session on Tuesday, Sept. 26, is organized by ASSEMBLY and will feature insights on several lean manufacturing success stories. According to Flinchbaugh, there are five common lean pitfalls:

  • Believing lean is only about manufacturing.
  • Allowing the lean department to lead lean initiatives.
  • Confusing "activity" with "productivity."
  • Focusing on "event lean," which prevents a company from becoming genuinely lean.
  • Believing "hare lean" will beat "tortoise lean."

A chief concern about Pitfall No. 1 is that companies are not always focused on the right problems. "There seems to be three dominant reasons why people get stuck in the lean-equals-manufacturing mindset," says Flinchbaugh.

"The first is that there is an abundance of media, books and training focused on ‘lean manufacturing,'" explains Flinchbaugh. "This has been perpetuated to such an extent that people wonder whether lean assembly will work in a machine shop. But, the machine shop is precisely where Toyota's Taiichi Ohno conducted his first experiments and refined lean transformation."

A second reason why people equate lean with manufacturing is that manufacturing is the most visible and measurable part of an organization. "It is easy to measure manufacturing," says Flinchbaugh. "While often the wrong things are measured, every manufacturing manager has at least a dozen numbers he or she can recite to explain process performance. A manufacturing plant may make improvements to increase productivity, but that does not necessarily mean its controller has improved the efficiency of closing the company's books."

The third reason for this mindset is because most companies start their lean transformation on the plant floor, so all other functions immediately associate lean with manufacturing. "Other functional leaders see manufacturing's efforts to break lean out of manufacturing as an attempt to encroach on their territory," notes Flinchbaugh. He recalls one large company that changed the wording on training materials used outside of manufacturing so that it would not appear to be manufacturing-based.

"When manufacturing does start to convince those outside of manufacturing that lean applies to them, it often takes the wrong approach, further complicating matters," warns Flinchbaugh. "The use of ‘lean manufacturing in finance' does not do anything to break down the wall. As lean is trained and communicated, the focus should not be just on manufacturing tools, such as andon cords and kanban cards. Lean rules and principles should be presented as the foundation that will apply to any process."

To learn more about the other four common lean pitfalls, be sure to attend the Lean Barrier Busting session at the 2006 Assembly Technology Expo. In addition to Flinchbaugh, the 3-hour session on Tuesday, Sept. 26, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., also features Joe Blanck, vice president of operations, strategy and manufacturing excellence at Schneider Electric (Palatine, IL); Tim Corcoran, vice president of ZF North America (Vernon Hills, IL); and Jim Kass, director of operations at Allen-Edmonds Shoe Corp. (Port Washington, WI). The event will include a panel discussion and Q&A session.

Assembly Technology Expo is the world's largest trade show for assembly tools and technology. It is attended by more than 12,000 manufacturing engineers, design engineers and plant managers from a wide variety of industries, including aerospace, appliance, automotive, consumer goods, electronics, industrial machinery, medical devices and telecommunications. ASSEMBLY is the official sponsor of the annual event. To register for the Lean Barrier Busting session or find out more information about Assembly Technology Expo, click

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