Bad Habits in Lean

Bad Habits

What if I told you that there was a pill available that would make you heart-attack proof, dramatically reduce your risk for diabetes, and shield you from many other chronic illnesses including cancer? Blood pressure down, cholesterol down, weight down, energy up. In addition this pill has absolutely no side effects, and no warnings needed on the label. No doctor’s prescription needed either. And there’s a mountain of scientific evidence to support its effectiveness. How much would you pay for this pill? Theoretically a lot, right?

Here’s the good news: you can get these benefits, and it’s not even a pill. What I’m talking about are the results of switching to a plant-based diet. Take a look at The China Study for one of the most comprehensive and data-driven projects on human diet ever conducted, and there’s new scientific data available every day supporting its conclusions. And yet most people, maybe even you, are skeptical or uninterested. I’ll take a pill, yes, but don’t ask me to change what I eat!

We like to eat what we grew up eating, and changing that is tough. In addition most doctors are not particularly well-educated in nutrition, there’s a flood of commercial advertising coming at us hourly offering unhealthy choices, and there’s also a fog of literature promoting (or self-promoting) a variety of conflicting dietary strategies. So there are many reasons for confusion on this issue, but a big one the power of habit.


There are some “good” Lean habits, documented beautifully in the book Toyota Kata, highly recommended. These are habits related to the application of the scientific method, to employee engagement, and to the cultural characteristics of successful Lean companies. Might there be some “bad” habits also associated with Lean? Explore this with me for a minute.

The Lean approach to manufacturing evolved out of the automotive industry, and some of the manufacturing methods pioneered by Henry Ford have been passed down through the decades, rightly so. The moving assembly line, line balancing, level-loading of the work content, all had their roots in Detroit’s Model-T production line. This basic approach to designing production lines has been passed down until today, and is used to design a Lean production line. Here’s how it goes: define the work steps and work times in detail (Standard Work), establish a rate or capacity goal for the line (Takt Time), calculate the number of resources needed (people, workstations, machines), and allocate the work evenly across the number of resources (Level Loading). There are a lot of other details, of course. Visual work instructions, visual factory, error-proofing, andon signals, Kanban material delivery methods, and so on.

But there is another way to work, different in many ways from the method described above, and that can be demonstrated scientifically. This different method will typically result in a 30% or more jump in operator productivity, have a positive influence on team-building, will reduce employee turnover (because operators like it), and will have a positive impact on WIP levels and quality. And yet, just like a plant-based diet, companies have been very slow in using this new production method. Another example of the power of habit.


Designing production lines and cells that are “self-balancing” opens the door to a long list of of advantages. First, the line is truly self-balancing, and the normal inefficiencies of waiting that are found in traditional production lines are almost completely eliminated. Second, the operators on the line can work more effectively as a team, and communicate with each other in managing the work flow. Third, standard work is naturally enforced, since operators are required to do work the same way. Fourth, this is the minimum WIP and minimum throughput time strategy. Finally, companies can expect a 30% productivity jump, compared to traditional production methods. Sometimes much more.

A few weeks ago I talked to the author of the book The Basics of Self-Balancing Processes: True Lean Continuous Flow, Gordon Ghirann. We discussed the “traditional” level-loading approach to line balancing, how the self-balancing approach works, what the advantages are for both the operators and the company, and why this method has not been more widely accepted. Click here to listen to this conversation in a 30-minute podcast, or get his book.


One way is to actually try it out, in a pilot experiment. Take a line or cell, measure baseline performance using the Level-Loaded approach, convert to a Self-Balancing approach, and re-measure performance. The other proof, not as good as actually doing it but much faster and cheaper, is to build a model of the proposed change. Test the differences using computer simulation, and make a decision to go forward based on what you learn. Click here to find out how to quickly get up to speed on simulation, including the necessary software.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have a veggie burger for lunch.

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