Lean Manu ... Something Or Other

During a break from the recent onslaught of food and football that is the Thanksgiving weekend, I was half-watching CNN and reading the Sunday morning paper when one of the network’s “reports” really caught my attention. It was detailing the losses of U.S. manufacturers since the economic downturn started about 14 months ago, along with one potential and earth-shatteringly different approach that some U.S. manufacturers are implementing to combat cheaper production opportunities overseas. (Seeing as how a sarcasm font is yet to be developed, please note that the last sentence was written with tongue firmly in cheek.)

The reporter made a point of slowing down his rate of speech to make sure viewers could really comprehend the term To-yo-ta Pro-duc-tion System, or le-an manufacturing. It seems these approaches are focused on eliminating waste and striving for continuous improvement in a company’s production flow. What a revolutionary idea.

It wasn’t the actual report that bothered me, as I feel that lean, TPS, Six Sigma, etc. will be vital to the future competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing, and any added exposure it can be given is nothing but positive. This is an opinion that springs not from reading text books, training manuals or white papers, and certainly not from mainstream media coverage.

Rather, I’ve seen it in action from facilities that range in size from single-digit employees to those with tens of thousands in locations from Podunk, NC to the Pacific Northwest. I know it can be effective in some way, shape or form because I’ve seen the before and afters and talked to the people who kept their jobs because these programs were implemented. Another “eye-opening” point of this report was how lean doesn’t necessarily mean cutting the workforce, but allows companies to do more without increasing the headcount and driving up costs, which includes everybody’s favorite topic—healthcare.

So, back to why this report sent me on such a tirade. We live in a country where inappropriate iPhone apps or indecent behavior by a celebrity puts people up in arms demanding some sort of action. However, when it comes to real-world losses impacting the foundation of our economy in the form of middle class manufacturing jobs, the mainstream media seems to prefer the ratings generated by reports on added unemployment numbers and sagging GNP figures over discussing and helping shed light on a potential solution to these problems.

This leaves us with a society that has no appreciation for the work being done to constantly reinforce the backbone of any strong economy—the ability to employ people in order to make stuff.

And that’s not solely the fault of CNN or any other media outlet. It’s ours in the manufacturing realm as well. We need to take greater steps in promoting the positive elements of U.S. manufacturing. Dormant buildings in Detroit and unemployed textile workers in the Southeast make for great background in economic reports. But what about the successes of those companies who have implemented leaner production approaches and help stave off the competition, layoffs and plant closures as a result?

I also know from first-hand experience how difficult it can be to get inside some of the more successful processing and manufacturing facilities around the country because once we find something that works we’re hesitant to share it in fear of exposing the secrets of our success. This is unfortunate on a number of levels.

U.S. manufacturing faces critical issues in terms of recruiting a new and correctly qualified workforce capable of functioning in the more technical environment U.S. manufacturing has become. Additionally, our lawmakers and the general public see the negative elements related to automotive production facilities and lump all of manufacturing into the same realm, even though this isn’t even true of that entire market segment.

Manufacturers in this country have a lot to be proud of, and a lot for which to be thankful. It’s time to express that pride and share this information with the general public in generating more positive sentiment towards our industry. This will help educate the public, motivate more highly capable workers to join our ranks and bring terms like lean manufacturing into the public domain where it belongs.