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Criticism of Lean Manufacturing

written by: N Nayab • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 2/8/2011

Lean manufacturing reduces costs, lead times, and inventory requirements, ensures greater productivity, and brings about overall efficiency. Lean manufacturing also comes in for much criticism. Read on for the major criticisms of lean manufacturing.

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    Criticism of Lean Manufacturing Lean manufacturing, simply known as “Lean" is an approach that focuses on the relentless elimination of waste. Lean considers allocation of resources for any activity that does not add value to the end customer as wasteful, and uses interventions such as Kaizen, quality interventions, just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, 5S, and other preventive programs to eliminate such wastes.

    Critics allege Lean to be a throwback to the group piecework systems of the 1920s where supervisors engage in full-time monitoring and disciplining under-performing workers; a return to Taylor’s scientific management approach from the more advanced behavioral approach to managing workers.

    Image Credit: Scelfo

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    The single biggest criticism of lean manufacturing is that the constant focus on improvement and elimination of waste becomes an obsession and causes stress in the workforce.

    Lean makes the workplace too clinical and impersonal, with workers under relentless pressure to do better than before. While such pressures lead to workers stepping out of their comfort zone and assuming a sense of urgency, it also increases stress levels considerably, and high stress levels can have determinable effects on productivity and efficiency.

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    No Margins for Error

    There are limitations of using lean manufacturing.

    Lean tools such as Just in Time Inventory and Six Sigma allows for no safety stock or margin of error, and vilifies any deviance from the codified optimal process. While striving for such perfection leads to better performance, attaining such precision standards may not always be possible, and at times, unrealistic owing to vagaries of the external environment and human nature. For instance, traffic jams can delay arrival of an inventory and thereby, hold up production in a JIT system. Similarly, excellent employees might have certain off days where they do not work at their productive best.

    Incorporating lean requires a favorable external climate. Incorporating lean principles, for instance is not possible in places with unreliable energy supply, inadequate transportation infrastructure, and or poor work culture in the society.

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    Over-Focus on Waste

    Another major criticism of lean manufacturing is the over-focus on elimination of waste overriding other concerns.

    Lean strives to ensure productivity and efficiency primarily trough cutting flab, but in the process, ignores other crucial parameters such as employee wellness, and corporate social responsibility. A company, for instance might recruit additional workers than necessary as part of its corporate social responsibility necessary to establish good relationships with local communities. Similarly, top management might need to spend an extensible amount of time to lobby and socialize with external agencies to secure orders, and negotiate extensively. Lean does not cater to such unconventional requirements.

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    Over-Focus on Present

    Lean’s constant pressure to eliminate waste and ensure optimal output places all energy on the present. Lean does not allow reflection or experimentation for the sake of development in the future. Such a focus on only the present may lead to missing out on the bigger picture, failing to comprehend the relevance of the task in the first place, or taking time to anticipate future challenges and make necessary changes to respond to such challenges.

    Lean also stifles creativity, innovation, or experimentation, which not only hampers the organization from responding to changes better, but also makes it difficult to realize sudden opportunities that have become the norm in a fast changing external environment.

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    Lack of Standard Methodology

    Lean is more a culture than a method, and there is no standard lean production model.

    The implementation of Lean takes place trough various tools such as Kaizen, 5S, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, and others. The absence of a standard methodology, with any or all such tools achieving the elimination of waste in a process, while allowing for flexibility of approach, can also work against Lean with people remaining confused on which tool serves the desired purpose.

    The success of any adopted Lean production model depends largely on the extent to which each individual member of the workforce masters the relevant tools and understands the methodology. Even if one individual among the workforce refuses ownership of Lean and fails to adopt lean practices, the entire Lean system collapses.

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    A review of the criticisms levied against lean manufacturing suggests that much of the drawbacks stem from the method of implementation rather than any inherent flaw in the lean culture. Proper planning, good implementation by incorporating effective change management practices and leadership, stress management interventions, and effecting a change of culture so that each member of the workforce inculcates the philosophy of Lean, helps resolve much of the limitations of using Lean manufacturing and overcoming the criticism of Lean manufacturing.