Japan has given us a mixed bag of good and bad over the years. Consider the Honda lawn mower, Pearl Harbor, the Japanese beetle, sushi and the Toyota Celica. Somewhere among these lies the concept of lean manufacturing. It's only fair to give the Japanese credit for inventing this popular panacea for performance problems and to rate it as a mixed bag of good and bad as well.

To be fair, the lean concept often makes sense. You can get workers involved by soliciting and developing their ideas, so it can be a motivator. Because they contributed the ideas, they should be committed to their success. You can publish the results as they occur, so folks know how they're doing in achieving the goals, further motivating them to do good.

That's not bad. Sometimes worker ideas pay off. But, like quality circles of an earlier generation, sometimes they don't. The problem with lean manufacturing is that it focuses on the work that people do on the shop floor. In its most beneficial form, lean manufacturing decreases the number of people needed to get the same output and shrinks in-process inventories. There's nothing wrong with either result, but it's rarely easy and the results may not amount to much.

The time-honored attack on direct labor usually doesn't pay back much. In most cases, direct labor cost is a relatively small contributor to total product cost. Because lean manufacturing is the province of the shop floor, it only affects shop floor activities and that's usually only direct labor cost.

Moreover, shrinking inventories often has a negative result, in that it causes output reductions far greater than the value of the inventory reduction. (We relearn that fact from time to time, usually when a state-of-the-art plant produces only about half of what we thought it would.)

Perhaps you'll see the benefits of lean manufacturing in better product quality and improved output--quality because the folks can relate more directly to what's good and what's not, and output because they've eliminated obvious delays and frustrations. However, it's tough to set a monetary value on "quality," and you may not need more output, just less cost.

So what's wrong with lean manufacturing, if it makes workers happy and produces benefits, even if the results may not be earthshaking? For one thing, if your company needs dramatic improvement, you aren't going to get it from going lean. Lean manufacturing can produce improvements, but nothing that can save a business. It's continuous improvement in a blitz mode.

There's another aspect of lean manufacturing that makes me uncomfortable. Going lean to solve a firm's operating problems has overtones of management abdication. The people who get paid to design and operate a profitable company recognize that something needs fixing, but they turn the diagnosis and cure over to the workers. The people on the shop floor see the business only in terms of local issues. If fixing the problem demands rethinking how business is done--as it often does--lean manufacturing just can't do it. It's up to management to take on the key issues whose resolution will provide the needed benefits. If the management team isn't up to the job, the answer is a better management team, not off-loading the responsibility to the workforce!

So try lean manufacturing, but don't expect too much! It's a bottom-up strategy. If you need a lot, you're only going to get it from the top down.

What's your opinion? Whether you agree or disagree, Don Ewaldz will welcome your comments. You can contact him via the Bourton Group's Web site. Just point your browser to www.bourtongroup.com and click on "Contact Us".