From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Ergonomists Should Be Leaders in Lean Enterprises

This article is reprinted with permission from The Ergonomics Report™ Archives, where it originally appeared on June 23, 2011 — nearly 2 years ago.

“Lean” is a word that’s commonly used to describe an emerging organizational management style. If your company or clients haven’t yet embraced it, they likely soon will, because a truly Lean Enterprise should outperform and outlast any other management system. The problem is, many misunderstand and misapply “Lean” methods, and therefore never gain from their potential benefits. And not coincidentally, those who fail to understand Lean are very likely to also have a negative view and poor understanding of ergonomics.

In fact, ergonomics is not only important in lean management systems; it’s virtually impossible to achieve the benefits of Lean without it. In this article I’ll provide a brief overview of Lean and explain how ergonomics not only fits well with it, but how it is critical to success.

What is Lean?

The basic concept of Lean can be summarized, for example, as:

The core idea is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers while wasting fewer resources. (adapted from Lean Enterprise Institute)

In its most basic form, there are 5 key process steps that formulate the Lean approach (adapted from Lean Enterprise Institute):

You may be familiar with tools commonly used in the Lean Journey, including, for example:

  • Value Stream Mapping
  • 5S
  • Kanban
  • Poke-Yoke
  • SMED (Single-Minute Exchange of Die)
  • Spaghetti Diagrams

However, using these types of tools does not mean a company is on a true Lean Journey, as any successful organization will tell you. Without the underlying philosophy discussed below, the benefits of these tools cannot be fully realized. (Many Lean proponents refer to this tools-only approach as “fake” or “false” Lean).

The Toyota Production System (TPS), pioneered by Toyota Motor Co., is considered the basis for what is now called Lean (coined in 1990 in the book “The Machine That Changed the World,” by James P. Womack, Daniel Roos, and Daniel T. Jones), but historians trace the origins of some Lean concepts back to people like Henry Ford, who pioneered many of the concepts, but is considered to have lost sight of some of the most important underlying principles over time. Essentially, he lost sight of the importance of identifying and responding to customer value, and he failed to manage and engage his workforce over time, resulting in significant labor strife. (Recall he’s credited with saying “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black;” and recall rioting by unhappy workers). Early Toyota leaders, including Kiichiro Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno, watched and analyzed Ford’s mistakes and formulated new manufacturing approaches that better served customers and employees alike, and created a process that minimized wasteful activities and maximized the use of available resources. Toyota entered the USA market as a small player, but did so with a 50-year plan, backed by TPS, and the rest is history. Some observers say Toyota’s recent stumbles are in part due to their failure to stay true to the Lean Journey that they pioneered.

Where Does (or Doesn't) Ergonomics Fit with Lean?

Note that creating customer value is at the core of Lean management philosophy. That is, customers – people – are the core focus of Lean. In practice, the companies that succeed on their Lean Journey recognize that there are really two underlying pillars that are necessary:

  1. Eliminate waste through continuous improvement
  2. Have and demonstrate Respect for People

Lean doesn’t mean getting “skinny”, and it doesn’t imply that management or the company should be “mean”. If you hear someone using phrases like “we’re lean and mean,” they likely misunderstand Lean, and will almost certainly fail to reap its benefits.

Instead, successful Lean Journeys truly demonstrate Respect for People; employees, suppliers, stakeholders, communities and customers alike. They don’t just give the concept “lip service,” they live and breath it.

I ask you, “who better to play a role in understanding and applying Respect for People than ergonomists?” We are uniquely qualified to do so, and from this perspective, a true Lean Management System is really what we would call macroergonomics, which asserts that holistic, systematic, human-centered organizational design will simultaneously optimize human well-being and overall system performance.

Ergonomists are also uniquely qualified, with proper training and experience in Lean, to act as Senseis in the Lean Journey. Sensei is a Japanese word for teacher, and the concept of Lean Sensei encourages organizations to seek outside experts (either outside the organization, or outside the core internal team) who can provide unbiased advice and coaching.

Ergonomists can play a valuable role in all facets of the Lean process, including assisting in the identification of customer value, and the optimization of the human-system interface throughout the value stream. Who better to help in designing and delivering a usable product than ergonomists? Who better to optimize the employee-production interface? Who better to optimize the human-system interface in supply chain processes?

There is simply no end to the value ergonomics and ergonomists can bring to an organization that is truly on a Lean Journey, nor is there a limit to how we can help reorient a floundering, misunderstood attempt at a Lean Journey.

There is much more to Lean, of course, than presented here, but the key message is that ergonomists are not only qualified to be leaders/senseis in the Lean Journey, we should take an active role in doing so, because we understand and promote Respect for People, perhaps the most important ingredient in the “secret sauce” of Lean.

Ergonomics is Respect for People, and Respect for People is required for the long-term success and viability of any legitimate organization.


This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2011-06-23.