Kaizen Musings — In Lean, Slow is Better than Fast

With lean flow, you can move like a tortoise and still win

One of the greatest selling points of lean is that it leads to faster throughput.

You would expect people in a lean plant running around frantically producing goods very fast.

But the reality in a truly lean organization is markedly different. While the output is very high, you will also notice that people are working at a comfortable pace.

Why are lean plants able to produce more and at the same time appear to be working slowly?

The simple answer is Flow. When all waste has been removed and only value adding activities remain, flow happens.

Like the tortoise racing the hare, lean plants use flow to move forward.

I remember one incident during a Kaizen workshop. We had just removed conveyor from the packing line and replaced them with U-shaped cells.

Many workers were used to using conveyors and some genuinely thought that they made the job easier. So — as is common during lean transformations — there was a lot of reluctance to use the new cells.

On the day we were to start using the production cells, only two could be fully manned.

For some reason or another, many workers we off duty or had been reassigned other duties.

We decided to work with the two cells available and to our surprise, productivity went off the roof!

Never before had the fruit salad portioning section done more than 3000 bowls in three hours. Not only that — this was accomplished by fewer workers. People and Time decreased while Output increased.

If you compare how the people on the workstations worked with those on the conveyor, there is a very big difference.

At the conveyor, it was always chaos — people running for missing items, pile ups of incomplete pieces and overcrowding were common occurrences.

With the new workstations, the people seemed more calm. Since materials were replenished by a Mizusumashi, workers did not need to move. They could now concentrate on the tasks.

The concept of flow also applies to mental processes. When you are engrossed in a task, your mind appears to be in a state of flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the famous Hungarian-American psychologist, has described flow as:

A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

How nice it would be to be in a state of continual flow.