Assembly Blog

Leading Lean: A Fond Farewell

January 26, 2011
I have written “Leading Lean” for ASSEMBLY for over 5 years. This marks my 55th and final contribution. I still have plenty to say, but it’s time for me to move on from this particular role.

Together, we have traversed topics ranging from 5S and process mapping to boards of directors and overcoming tough bosses. Based on the number of letters and e-mails I’ve received, many of you have enjoyed the journey as much as I have. You can review all 55 blog posts at

I will continue to write, both on my blog at and in articles. I hope you will continue to support ASSEMBLY.

In my departure, I want to make an argument in support of American manufacturing. Much has been made of the demise of manufacturing in the United States. This is strongly overstated.

First, manufacturing employment hasn’t dropped as much as people think. Many jobs have just been distributed to other companies rather than remain part of a vertically integrated enterprise. Ford, for example, once employed truck drivers, trainers and lab technicians. Today, those jobs are done by other companies. Although they are now considered service jobs, the jobs are the same, and they still support manufacturing. The reported demise of manufacturing, at least by the numbers, is greatly exaggerated.

Second, there is a difference between sending labor-only jobs overseas, and sending knowledge and capability-based jobs. We have demonstrated that jobs requiring the capability and ingenuity of skilled workers, engineers and management have no need to go anywhere.

Third, an understanding of total cost will continue to bring some jobs closer to where consumption is located. This will mean jobs in China, but also in the United States. Companies have already been moving jobs back, because they understand the less-visible costs of communication, transportation and inflexibility due to long supply lines. I don’t fault companies for making good decisions based on cost; but I do fault companies when they make bad decisions without fully understanding their value streams.

What can we do to support U.S. manufacturing? First, we need to focus on skill and education, both within our companies and as a country. Education and skill-building must be a priority. Only by investing in skills at every level of our manufacturing infrastructure will we remain competitive. Talent is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage, especially because it builds on itself. Education must include everything from welding and machining skills to lean management and product development. Our universities must get involved. Our companies must make it a priority. Government agencies must make all of this easier. And each of us personally must take the lead in our own on-going learning.

Second, we need to find more mechanisms to encourage investment in R&D and equipment. These jobs have benefits at many levels. First, companies need the right products, processes and equipment to remain competitive. Second, these jobs have a multiplier affect in terms of economic impact. They generate several jobs in peripheral activities.

Finally, I also want to leave you with my 1-minute lesson on leadership. Ask yourself these three questions:

  • What is the change that I want to see? You need to have a vision of where things need to move towards.

  • What are you willing to do, sacrifice or risk to make that happen? You must be willing to put yourself forward if you want to lead.

  • What is stopping you from doing that today? Is it fear? Is it skill? Is it a partner in crime?

    If you can answer those questions, you will know what to do next. After all, lean begins with you.

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