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Iconoclasm of the day: Is lean manufacturing long in the tooth?

Posting in Technology
 
Toyota Prius Toyota DotCoDotUK.jpg
Lean's eleventh commandment: Thou shalt recall. Toyota, the demigod of lean manufacturing, has made a habit of producing faulty vehicles over the last few years. Most recently, it recalled its popular Prius, above.
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It's hard to think of a principle that the business world worships more than "lean." 

This manufacturing religion, hatched by its demigod Toyota 50 years ago, has attracted followers the world over who bow to its commandments of just-in-time delivery, of minimizing waste, of problem solving workshops, of emergency cords that workers can pull to halt assembly, and much, much more.

So many smart people are so immersed in its doctrines. They have written tomes about it. One group of experts, consultants McKinsey, has now not only paid homage to Toyota and lean's first five decades, but has also heralded lean's eminence for the upcoming half century. In an essay entitled Next frontiers for lean, McKinsey preaches that industries outside of manufacturing should convert, especially service industries like retailing, health care, finance, information technology, airlines and also the public sector.

As I dodge lightning bolts, I ask: What?!!

You mean the same lean production system, the same Toyota that has churned out all those faulty cars and whose name has become somewhat synonymous with "recall" in recent years? The Toyota that has had to yank some of its best known brands off the road, most recently the Prius, preceded by the Camry, Corolla and others, for mishaps including sudden acceleration, unexpected stops and fire hazards? The same Toyota where the recall count has exceeded 20 million alone since January 2012?

The same lean whose well-known disciples have encountered similar difficulties? General Motors, for instance, recently recalled over 3 million vehicles that potentially had malfunctioning ignition switches. 

Why is lean so sacrosanct, when it produces cars that can accidentally catch on fire, crash to a halt or careen out of control? Perhaps it has become the Vladimir Putin of industry - a tyrant that people don't dare question?

Maybe, just maybe, McKinsey is diplomatically hinting that it's time to at least rewrite lean principles when it notes, "Despite lean’s trajectory, broad influence, and level of general familiarity among senior executives, it would be a mistake to think that it has reached its full potential." When McKinsey praises Toyota for now "rethinking the art of the possible in production-line changeovers," perhaps it is opening the door for a major revision of lean itself. 

Lean has served industry well. But it seems that it's time to write a new manufacturing holy book. Or at least to add a new testament to the old one.

Image is from Toyota.co.uk

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— By on March 25, 2014, 7:25 AM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure