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January, 2003

In a recent message to the NWLEAN discussion group, a contributor wrote:

"I am looking at a manufacturing operation that is doing things the old way. Waste is almost everywhere, the old (everyone has been here for 20 years or more) management has a theory "if it is not broken, don't touch it". I have suggested several improvements, but I can't show the savings since everything concerning money is kept secret. I have however convinced the new managers that we can improve the situation if we work as a group and also we need to learn about lean manufacturing.

Roger Ellis, BSIE, MBA, MSE
We are an OEM company that is in steel fabrication. Here I need your help. Some can give us some references for books on lean manufacturing. We are all beginners in Lean Manufacturing and willing to learn. Any book or articles are welcome. We do not have much time for seminars. Thank you for your help".

I see a similar message almost every week that reads in a similar fashion. Let me draw two analogies from my personal life and see how they apply to the business world. The first is drawn from my lifelong passion for aviation and flying. It goes like this:

"Hi. I am just out of college and have no flight experience. My company just hired me to be the corporate pilot and fly our brand-new business jet to Europe next week. Everyone at our company is new to flying, but we are willing to learn. Can someone give us some references for books on flying? Any books or articles are welcome, as we do not have much time for flying lessons".

Fortunately, the Federal Aviation Administration has regulations against a scenario like the one I have painted. In order to be a corporate pilot, a person must obtain a pilot certificate that documents their knowledge and skill based on objective measurable standards, and the experience to perform the job that they are being hired to do. They also must possess a current medical certificate that documents their state of health. What would happen otherwise is they would crash and burn.

There is no Lean Manufacturing Administration that imposes they same type of requirements in the manufacturing world. Crash and burn is exactly what happens to lean enterprise initiatives that are begun in companies like this one, due to lack of the requisite leadership, knowledge, experience and skills. You can't learn how to do it from a book.

Dr. Deming said (paraphrasing) that a beginner needs an expert teacher. A hack can do much more harm to a novice than to a professional. When I decided I wanted to become a pilot, I did not ask around for a book and then attempt to go out and fly a plane. I went to the airport, sought out the most experienced flight instructor I could find, and wrote him a lot of checks from my personal checking account to instruct me for the required number of hours in the required skills and knowledge to earn my private pilot certificate. I then continued to take lessons to earn an instrument rating and to develop a higher level of skill and experience to qualify for the commercial pilot rating. Then, I continued to fly on a regular basis, week in and week out, to continuously gain more experience.

The analogy here is the use of an expert trainer/consultant to transfer the required knowledge into the organization, and particularly to the top management at the company. Without a steady, ongoing, prolonged learning program by management, lean implementation is simply not going to happen.

And by the way, remember that every day you are flying against the best in the business world. The companies out there that have embraced lean and driven it all they way through their organizations and into the supply chain are the Top Gun instructors, the aces, the best combat pilots in the world. What are your chances of becoming world class as a company (or even being competitive) if you are a beginner looking for a book or two on how to fly?

The second analogy comes from my second lifelong passion, the drum and bugle corps activity. I have been involved in this activity as a playing member, corps officer, journalist, show sponsor and fan for almost 40 years. The second analogy goes like this:

"I am a member of a drum and bugle corps that is doing things the old way. Management has a theory "if it isn't broken, don't touch it". I have suggested several improvements, but I can't cost justify them. We are trying to compete in the Mini-Corps class (maximum of 21 performers) in the Drum Corps Associates senior corps circuit. Can someone give us some reference books on playing drums and bugles? We are all beginners and willing to learn. We do not have much time for music lessons".

Last summer I played a mellophone bugle with the Erie Thunderbirds Alumni Drum and Bugle Corps from Erie PA. The Drum Corps Associates circuit contested a Mini-Corps Championship for the last ten consecutive years. The Thunderbirds have competed seven times and have won six World Championships, including 2002. I can tell you from personal experience that a record like ours was not achieved by reading a book about playing a horn or a drum. We have two of the best men in the activity as our horn and drum instructors, and simply would not be successful without them. The vision of everyone in the organization is simple: take on all comers at the Mini-Corps Championship, out-perform every one of them and win the title - every year. It takes inspired leadership, talented performers, top-quality instruction, the individual discipline to practice daily, and a relentless organizational drive to be the best performing ensemble in the world. And yes, it takes a LOT of time to achieve excellence. The same holds true in the business world.

Your comments are welcomed.

Roger C. Ellis

Mr. Roger C. Ellis is an accomplished engineering manager, consultant, educator and trainer specializing in lean manufacturing and project management. He has more than 35 years of hands-on engineering, management, education and training experience. Mr. Ellis enjoyed a thirty-year career at General Motors in manufacturing and manufacturing engineering prior to starting his own training and consulting business. He develops and conducts seminars on behalf of the American Management Association, Arizona State University, the Six Sigma Academy and the Institute of Industrial Engineers. He is a consultant to manufacturing companies internationally. Education: MSE Purdue University; MBA State University of New York; BSIE General Motors Institute.

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