Challenges and frustrations of implementing lean manufacturing.

Author:Rogers, John W.


This study was conducted to help us understand why implementing continuous improvement strategies can be difficult at times. It also addresses the problem of resistance to change within even those firms whose CEOs are fully committed to implementation of continuous improvement programs. The study is based on a Fortune 500 manufacturing plant located in the United States. A survey was distributed to both salaried and unionized hourly employees. Results from the survey show that the problem lies primarily with an aging and high seniority hourly workforce and a lack of committed leadership at this research site.


Producing more with less is often the key to survive in this competitive environment. Changing production methods from mass-production with high inventory to a leaner operation with low inventory has become an essential practice for successful manufacturers, including General Electric, United Technology Corporation, and Honeywell, among others [1]. The message to employees is clear: if goods cannot be produced defect free, on time, and at a reasonable price, they will be manufactured elsewhere [2].

The above story is well known and often told in corporate America. Less often discussed is the depth of resistance to change that impedes the implementation of these techniques. Streamlining an established industrial firm can bring management into conflict with many subtle but deeply entrenched attitudes that resist change and the fundamental shift toward greater efficiency that these "lean" techniques promise. This is true even in the case of firms whose CEOs are fully committed to quality and ready to spend significant corporate resources in explaining these programs to all levels of employees and training them thoroughly in their implementation [3].

This research project addresses the problem of resistance to change within even those firms whose CEOs are fully committed to implementation of continuous improvement programs. Collaborators on this research project worked closely in the implementation of continuous improvement initiatives within a major corporation and struggled as they saw events fall short of their intended goals. Many implemented programs fell back to their original costly and chaotic mode. To develop an understanding of these complex organizational dynamics, a survey was conducted to gather data directly from the management and workers on the shop floor.

Total Quality Systems and Lean Production

Improving quality has been widely recognized as a competitive advantage in the global economy [4]. Brah et al. (2002) supported the proposition that total quality implementation correlates with quality conformance [5]. Thus, total quality systems aim at improving quality. Lean production or lean management, on the other hand, originated at Toyota in Japan by Japanese engineers Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo and has been implemented by many major US firms, including Danaher Corporation and Harley-Davidson [6]. The driving force behind the development of lean management was the elimination of waste, especially in Japan, a country with few natural resources.

Both total quality systems and lean production or lean management have now evolved into comprehensive management systems. Their effective implementation involves cultural changes in organizations, new approaches to product and to...

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