The Dilbert comic strip has mocked nearly every aspect of corporate America for decades. Among those targets includes process improvement methodologies and management fads. And, funny enough, there are lessons we can learn from the good-natured criticisms.
“I Assure You That This Program Has a Totally Different Name”
5S, TQM, Lean, Six Sigma and other process improvement methodologies share elements with at least one other. Lean, I think, originates from the Toyota Production System. Supply chain management is a rebranding of inventory control and lead time reduction. Six Sigma is an extension of Total Quality Management. Continuous Process Improvement in various forms comes from Deming’s PDCA. Adding another one or two steps is literally a minor change. The new name is used to sell a new set of consulting services, while those who are not IEs think that it is unrelated to the prior skillsets. I sat in one interview where the interviewer asked me if I was familiar with CPI. I had to ask for clarification, since the financial term was my first thought. I said yes, Six Sigma, and my degree by definition includes lean principles. They likely struck me off the list then, because my prior training didn’t seem relevant to the new buzzword.
“My Company Is Moving to JIT.” “So Your Success Depends on Us Keeping Promises? Sympathies.”
This is a synopsis of a March 14, 2003 comic strip. And it surprises me that some people don’t realize the great risk a just in time system creates. When you’re reliant on the other person to meet schedule and quality requirements, you’re at the mercy of their performance. Having some inventory on hand to fill in the gaps if they are late shouldn’t be seen as a sin, even if you have alternate sources of products and services, since your backup plans may take longer than you expect. You don’t have to hoard inventory unless that is literally the only way to acquire it (farm harvests, for example), but having margin is always wise.
“Less of What?”
The February 13, 2011 Dilbert comic strip features the pointy haired boss saying less is more. However, he rules out less meetings and less micromanagement, instead clarifying he only means less money. In general, we need to recognize that lean should include less of all sorts of waste and shouldn’t automatically come with the assumption that you can cut funding. Ironically, process improvement methods can become inefficient in their own right, when you’re chasing asymptotic limits of improvement. Switching to a different methodology like from Lean to Six Sigma or Six Sigma to 5S improves the odds you’ve find new, low cost improvements to make in the organization and process flow.