Editor's Desk

By Michael Hughes

All systems start with people

What comes first, the system or the people?

Well, if we want to be literal, people likely came first. Our evolutionary forebears had to be waltzing around the campsite before, say, they discovered fire and created the first cooking system. (Many thanks, as steak tartare is rather wretched.)

So it’s not being human-centric or selfish to believe that any system involving humans should consider us first. Understanding that is the key to understanding lean production, maintain Daniel Jones and Michael Ballé in this month’s cover story, “Lean Is a People-Centric System.”

Jones, a co-author of The Machine that Changed the World, which popularized lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System worldwide, and Ballé, an author and associate researcher at Telecom ParisTech, decry the engineering world’s continual obsession with forcing workers to comply with an ever more finely tuned “perfect” system.

This is not to say that the system isn’t important. And in many ways, choosing one or the other is a false dichotomy. By definition, a system for creating, producing and distributing goods and services includes people somewhere. And it’s hard for people to exist outside of a system. (No man is an island and all that.)

But Jones and Ballé make the valid point that people aren’t widgets or automatons, and any system worth its performance rating must allow input from those involved. After all, only people can care – any system, no matter how solid, can be deterministic, remorseless and unfeeling.

Within that ability to care resides the magic of letting the people help the system – its design, how it produces what your customers want, knowing how your customers interact with the end product, and everything else. Proscribing people with tightly wound systems limits their space to think and solve problems one by one.

So click here and find out how your organization can improve performance. Don’t copy Toyota’s industrial practices. Instead, practice the vaunted automaker’s respect for people.

Michael Hughes is managing editor of IISE. Reach him at mhughes@iise.org or (770) 349-1110.