Editor's Desk

By Michael Hughes

The humanity of lean

Yeah, that headline up there kind of makes me do a double take too.

Before arriving at IISE, I associated lean with another four-letter word, diet. After earning my green belt, I "advanced" to viewing lean as a set of tools to cut waste and improve efficiency. Perhaps I'm only partway there.

You see, I have what Michael Ballé and Daniel Jones consider a mechanized view of lean, where lean tools just optimize operations and cut costs. Sure, that's part of it, but it holds the danger of commoditizing your operations, leading to a rigid, unthinking organization that continually pares costs, driving down the quality of your products and services.

Not exactly the recipe for sus"tained profitability. And the authors of this month's cover story, "Flow to Learn," certainly have the credentials to be taken seriously. Ballé has written an intriguing three-novel series about lean. Jones co-authored 1989's seminal The Machine that Changed the World and was part of the team that launched the lean revolution. Both have studied lean for decades.

They contend that figuring out the flow of value through your enterprise should be an exercise in tackling fixed, not hourly, costs. That multimillion-dollar machine might handle a batch quickly, but if it then stands idle, that's real waste.

Ballé and Jones write that learning must happen at all levels – the executives, middle management and the front-line staff. Flow will point out where those learning opportunities are, a vision that has the human being always leading. Mechanical contraptions "support the good sense, initiative and creativity of the person."

So learning is good – that's important to know, as May is the month for IISE's Annual Conference and Expo. Read The Institute and visit www.iise.org/annual for more on the hundreds of learning opportunities there.

For Ballé's and Jones' take, click here. Perhaps your continuous improvement program can be replaced by a continuous learning one.

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