The long successful history of lean adopters – whether they started to integrate lean early or recently – has been always a crucial weapon against any failure story that could reflect significant remarks about lean as a philosophy. Very few researchers dared to challenge the perfection of lean concept as being the definite framework to improve performance and realise business objectives. Dabhilkar and Åhlström (2013) highlighted many issues in terms of operation improvement, which are fuelled by lean thinking with a special focus on the missing role of sociotechnical systems in light of lean. Moreover, Jorgensen (2012) shed the light of the deficit of deeply rooted lean capabilities to live up to emergency situations and short-term recovery in high tech sector. Additionally, early in 2005, Cox and Chicksand conducted a study of lean applicability in food industry in the UK that resulted in highlighting many questions related to lean. In the mid-nineties, Cusumano (1994) tried to get the attention of lean-adopting industrialists claiming that it is not all about lean and it is neither the ultimate goal toward which technologies and resources should be shaped. Nonetheless, too many businesses failed to apply lean after that, but there was a major tendency to attribute the failure to inappropriate application of lean instead of questioning the lean concept itself. This type of denial to criticize lean is reflected from many researches dedicated to study the applicability of lean in a wide range of industries and geographic or statutory contexts, which indicates that applying lean is not to be discussed once found to be possible. While it is easy to prove improvement results by disabling the generation of easy-to-eliminate wastes, this article recaps some major issues rooted in the principles of lean.
The Ambiguity of Value-Adding Characteristic and Lean Optimality in Relation to Environmental Issues
Product and service functions and features are getting more and more complex than ever, and along with that, new customer needs are regularly identified. While it is relatively easy to categorize all activities that directly contribute to the transformation of a product or service as value-adding, it is still ambiguous to explicitly sort out the continuously evolving customer needs indirectly tied to the making process of a product or service. For instance, to ideally apply Just-In-Time (JIT) for the sake of keeping inventories at the lowest levels, it is very likely to increase the transportation activities and related emissions consequently. If low emission rate per product could be considered as important characteristic for customers, it is then difficult to determine if keeping more inventory is to be regarded as more significant waste than high transportation activities. Which of these paradoxes should be sacrificed and how synergy could be explicitly achieved to appropriately apply lean? Does re-defining which activity is to be waste for individual cases make lean the concept really applied? In other words, tailoring the essence of lean (waste elimination) for the sake of business could be perceived as extracting what to be good from lean practices, not vice versa, since there should be one optimal version of lean to be called for in the first place. In general, the full applicability of lean has been rarely confirmed through different studies, which raises a question if lean is realistic enough in its currently presented package for organizations to address as the ultimate operational goal.
Natural Disasters and Emergency
The globalization of business and international dependencies embedded in many industries – such as high tech sector – makes building resilient and flexible operations a success factor to survive in the global market. Jorgensen (2012) believes that natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami that hit the wafer-manufacturing facilities in many parts of Japan and the flooding that paralyzed the hard-disk drive industry in Thailand could be seen as one evidence to the fragility of tight lean redundancies, which failed to keep the business running longer while recovery. The reaction to the natural disasters in Thailand was to build resilient and agile supply chain at the cost of lean. Nevertheless, defining the right middle ground in which one or more of the lean principles are traded off is not clearly formulated in today’s research. Therefore, it is a challenge for executives to make scenario-based decisions in which businesses are able to more strongly stand against emergency turbulences.
Supply Chain, Technology Infrastructure, New Product Development and Innovation-Oriented Redundancy
One of the main important concerns related to applying lean in a particular context is the uncertainties of customer needs surrounding that context up- and downstream (Kainuma & Tawara, 2006). That is to say if a company positioned as a first-tier supplier to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) is perfectly applying lean principles and toolkits, it is impossible for this company to smoothly run their operations without fluctuations if their suppliers (i.e. second-tier supplier) and their customers (OEMs) are not doing the same with extensive coordination. Besides, Ross (2013) claims that to orchestrate a simple supply chain which revolves around a relatively simple product, years of extensive efforts and significant industries are required to streamline the supply chain operations according to lean. For this fact, it is assumed that no contextual hindrances are identified, meaning that aligning a whole supply chain with lean could practically take significantly long time and much money. This time is typically spent on decision making since each supply chain participant could possibly have more customers and suppliers to consider, and it is not that simple to favour certain parties by specifying levels of inventory, unit cost, order quantity … etc that could be could be exclusively good fit for them. In terms of cost, organizational systems along the supply chain should be at least homogeneous – if not similar – in order to facilitate achieving the suitable degree of transparency and visual management, which lean calls for. Additionally, all machines and processes along the supply chain should be reconfigured and developed so that their cycle and changeover times do not exceed the maximum acceptable lead time for a product or service. In many cases, this type of chain is stumbled by problems that require technologically infeasible solutions.
Apart from the pain caused by the lean-oriented transformation for a supply chain, a more important point that should be raised is if the participants involved in this supply chain are not going to be substituted or magnified for the sake of innovation and new product development. Which party need to adapt and change to fit and how much this change will cost? What if an innovative supplier has much to offer in terms of sustainable business growth but they are not willing to change their way of working according to lean from the corresponding OEM perspective? That is not unexpected since Cusumano (1994) discussed how Japanese automotive companies used to stress up their international suppliers that are not used to the Japanese culture, which eventually pushed several of them to terminate their partnerships. In addition to that, the rate of technological changes are more rapid and multi-disciplinary than ever, and it is not expected to slow down. Therefore, the product life cycles are far from being anticipated and investing in new product development – and thereby establishing new partnerships – is gaining more attention as a strategy towards sustainable growth and against business erosion. Based on that, building efficient lean supply chains may save significant amount of cost, but, in the same time, construct rigidities that hinder acting positively within innovation ecosystems.
The future operations holds a lot of surprises that require using contingent toolkits which could be in turn regarded as an efficient fit for the situation in hand. What could be crucial is the ability to build flexible operations that could enable sufficiently efficient performance under unexpected market behaviours. Building redundancies in organizational systems is really waste from lean point of view until an unforeseen need justifies its existence. Therefore, the challenge in lean is not how to eliminate waste, but it is rather a question of which type of waste is of a strategic ammunition for the organization to keep so that to enable reacting actively with unideal business environment forces from lean perspective including suppliers, markets, legal frameworks, political turbulences, technology readiness, and cultural diversity. Lean is undoubtedly a perfect fit if the operational environment is well prepared for it, but the question is if there is a guarantee for this environment to be unchanged for a certain amount of time ahead. In other words, lean is not a planned journey that aims at taking organizations to zero-waste level since the need for this waste reduction is uncertain, leading to an unexpected end of this journey. Moreover, lean is neither a destination since organizations may need to re-use it as needed. What I believe is that lean is an inspiring guide to develop custom tools dedicated to eliminate waste and enable capable, transparent and continuous operations for organizations that can prove the stability of their businesses backed up by specific timeframe for certain products or services. This means that lean shapes a path on a journey that is not necessarily the most effective one, nor literally reflects the ideal image of typical lean .
Cox, A., & Chicksand, D. (2005). The Limits of Lean Management Thinking:. European Management Journal, 23(6), 648-662. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2005.10.010
Cusumano, M. A. (1994). The Limits of” Lean”. Sloan management review, 35, 27-27.
Dabhilkar, M., & Åhlström, P. (2013). Converging production models: the STS versus lean production debate revisited. Int Jrnl Of Op & Prod Mnagemnt, 33(8), 1019-1039. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/ijopm-08-2012-0316
Jorgensen, B. (2012). Supply Chain: The limits of lean.
Kainuma, Y., & Tawara, N. (2006). A multiple attribute utility theory approach to lean and green supply chain management. International Journal of Production Economics, 101(1), 99-108.
Ross, D. F. (2013). Competing through supply chain management: creating market-winning strategies through supply chain partnerships. Springer Science & Business Media.