The Supply Chain Management Review just published a really lame article (Why China Is Not Ready for Lean Projects).
The author is Rosemary Coates, an American consultant. I gave only 2 stars out of 5 to her book about China sourcing (see my review here).
Let’s go through some excerpts from her article.
First nonsense: lean manufacturing is a set of techniques
When product quality at one of these [Chinese manufacturers] was not achieving the company’s standards, the VP of Supply Chain [of the importing company] dispatched a team of people to go to China and teach the factory problem-solving Lean Manufacturing techniques.
The importer wanted to use a few techniques from the lean manufacturing toolkit. They didn’t even do it the right way (as we’ll see soon), so it didn’t work.
Actually, “real” lean manufacturing is based on a set of principles (respect for people, continuous improvement…) that produce tools and techniques. A true lean transformation takes years, and is NOT primarily about techniques.
Second nonsense: classroom training should be enough
The team arrived in Dongguan and went to work giving an overview class on Lean techniques. The factory workers seemed attentive and interested in learning. The next day, the Silicon Valley Lean team gathered the people from the assembly line to begin the process of working on the quality problem. After 3 hours, the Lean team ended the session in utter frustration. No one participated. No one would identify problems on the line. No one knew how to approach gathering or analyzing data. No one volunteered.
In my experience, classroom training is not effective in China. Only on-the-job training and coaching can lead to a change in behaviors, and it takes time.
They expected Chinese employees to speak up and point to problems in front of customers! These Americans didn’t make the effort to understand the local culture, and they ended up feeling frustrated. So unique and so surprising…
Lean is not about quick training. As detailed at length in Toyota Kata, ongoing on-the-job coaching is necessary to reach very high productivity and quality levels.
Third nonsense: lean principles come from the West
What methodologies such as Lean, TQC, Six Sigma and others don’t take into account are the cultural differences between the Western world and China. Lean principles are based on Western ideas and methods including critical thinking and collaboration.
Didn’t lean principles come from the Toyota Production System?
Granted, they got some inspiration from the Ford production system, from American supermarkets, and from Deming’s teachings after Word War II. But the “principles” (e.g. continuous improvement, putting people and processes first…) seem to come from Japan at least as much as from the West.
Fourth nonsense: lean thinking is incompatible with Chinese culture
The teachings of Confucius, on the other hand, suggest behaviors that oppose collaborative problem solving and public criticism. The Chinese have been practicing Confucian values for nearly 3000 years. Children are taught Confucian values in elementary school and families practice them in their daily lives. For example, “saving face” is way more important than concerns for quality. If a worker were to criticize the production line processes as the cause for quality problems, the line supervisor would surely lose face. So it is very unlikely that anyone would speak up to offer criticism.
There are actually two nonsenses here.
First, criticism seems to be necessary in a lean manufacturing environment. Really?
What is necessary is removing the need for criticism. Once you work on small batches, in small and autonomous teams, and everyone follows a clear standard, it is much easier to notice quality problems. And then, instead of pointing fingers, the team leader should concentrate efforts on fixing the process and training the workers.
In a lean organization, suggestions are good, finding problems is good, and criticism is bad.
Second, Chinese culture seems to be an insurmontable obstacle to the adoption of lean principles. I don’t buy this.
In Lean Thinking, the authors recognize that certain aspects of “lean” (such as hansei) are harder to adopt outside of Japan. But they explain at length how Toyota gradually succeeded in converting their North-American operations, starting with their Georgetown facility, to their principles.
Create the right kind of atmosphere and culture in the company, and it get much easier to implement lean manufacturing.
What should that importer have done?
I think they had two options (apart from switching to another manufacturer):
- The short-term fix: aim at “kaikaku” (one-time radical improvements). For example, if one process was producing defects, some techniques from the lean handbook could have helped — as I suggested in a previous article about troubleshooting.
- The long-term fix: transform the company’s culture little by little, to the point where they can count on the staff to help out and give suggestions. It seems like they thought they could jump to this stage in a few hours. In China, this kind of things takes much, much longer.
Conclusion: is China ready for lean?
For now, and the next 10-15 years, I see traditional values winning the race.
I actually agree with the author, but for different reasons. China IS ready for lean, but it will take a long time for factory owners to wrap their heads around lean thinking.
Lean manufacturing hasn’t even won the race in the US or in Europe, and is not even close to winning it… So let’s give China some slack, all right?
Update: I found out that I wasn’t the first one to react to this article. See China Is Ready for Lean Projects, like the Rest of the World, written by a true lean expert.