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Lean Manufacturing is about People, not Just Process

To optimize lean processes, manufacturers need to think more about talent.

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While lean manufacturing principles have been used in some fashion for more than a century, the changing nature of the industry also is altering the application of those principles. Many manufacturers are using technology and analytics to improve these processes; yet to leverage lean manufacturing in today’s environment is increasingly about talent.

Jamie Flinchbaugh, lean advisor, speaker and author, has said the relationship between lean and process is “overstated.” He feels that while a number of lean methods are focused on processes, alone, these processes are not enough. Lean manufacturing calls for placing a higher priority on talent.

“Too many improvement efforts treat talent as a fixed commodity. Certainly, it shouldn’t be an excuse, nor should it be a reason not to improve your processes. You don’t just hire talent and leave it alone,” Flinchbaugh said.


He advises that manufacturers start by having the right talent in place. They then need to make that talent responsible for its own improvement, coaching and training, and then leverage the top talent to build more talent. And much like a manufacturer would strengthen and reduce risk in their material supply chains, they also need to view their talent in the same manner.

Many manufacturers continue to struggle to find skilled and interested workers, and lack plans for long-term success. Jeannie Kunz, vice president of Tooling U-SME, a company that helps manufacturers develop in-house training programs, recently said that many are not balancing capital investments with workforce initiatives to meet the new demands. When the talent isn’t there, productivity, quality, innovation and safety can suffer, regardless of the processes in place.

“Talent plus process can lead to success. Of course, don’t ignore your processes, but also don’t sacrifice talent in the pursuit of process improvement. Talent matters,” Flinchbaugh said.

Jason McGee-Abe, editorial lead at Process Excellence Network, said that not utilizing talent is increasingly being viewed as a source of waste in today’s manufacturing. He said that not using or under-utilizing workers’ skills, talents and knowledge can have a “detrimental” effect on an organization.

Common ways in which manufacturers don’t fully optimize their use of talent include assigning staff to wrong tasks, poor communication, lack of teamwork, poor management and insufficient training. McGee-Abe said many of these are the same things that result in a lack of employee engagement. He feels key solutions include empowering your employees, stopping micromanaging and increase training.

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