Be wary of consultants who think their approach is a panacea.

I was recently a "fly on the wall" at a meeting led by the vice president of operations of a major manufacturing company. He wanted to make his operations "lean." Among those at the meeting were representatives from two consulting firms.

Each firm presented completely different approaches to lean manufacturing. One thought lean was a way of thinking and working, a constant search for ways to eliminate waste. The other thought lean was something more physical, something you could see and touch, such as a lean assembly line. The "way of thinking" crowd wanted to train the employees in lean techniques, such as waste identification, kaizen events, kanban logistics, and teamwork. The "show me the lean!" crowd offered an idea of what a lean assembly line would look like in terms of equipment, layout, technology, manning, and material handling and logistics.

The "way of thinking" crowd offered continuous improvement, while the other offered a "Big Bang" approach, which took something old and replaced it with something new and better. Both approaches had merit, but which was the best for this company?

On one hand, if the horse is old and dying, continuous improvement isn't going to have much impact: You really need a new horse. Here, I would use the Big Bang approach: Shoot the old horse and replace it with a young, strong one. However, if you already have a young, strong horse, and he won't do what you want him to, then it's time he got trained. Here, I'd recommend the continuous improvement trail.

Unfortunately, the VP didn't even own a horse. He was starting from scratch, and the Big Bang approach seemed to be the way to go.

However, the continuous improvement folks saw an opportunity, too. Their recommendation was to pair a group of employees with a group of consultants. The consultants would train the employees in lean techniques, then help them come up with a lean design for the new facility. The Big Bang consultants offered to take a clean sheet of paper, throw technical experts into a room, and come up with a lean design, assisted by the manufacturer's employees.

Being an engineer, the VP felt more comfortable with the technical approach, feeling it would provide him with the lean operating environment he sought. The continuous improvement consultants countered that their approach would provide a world-class manufacturing facility, not necessarily a lean environment.

Of course, this led to a whole other discussion about the differences between lean manufacturing and world-class manufacturing. No conclusions were reached in the debate, other than that there are a lot of manufacturing buzzwords out there, and everybody has a different idea of what they mean.

So, what's a manager to do when the boss wants the plant to be "lean"? People in manufacturing are constantly looking to improve, and there are a lot of useful tools out there to help them. The lesson is that no one approach is the silver bullet for everybody. Every situation is different, with difficult manufacturing problems, unique corporate cultures, and different products and market conditions. The best advice I can give is to utilize consultants, because the right ones can provide know-how and a wide range of experience. However, be wary of the ones who think their approach is a panacea. They obviously know the approach they sell, but do they really know manufacturing? Are they creative? Can they think beyond their book? If the approach is canned, it's probably full of worms.