Sep 21, 2016

Lean Transformation and Indian Industry

R Jayaraman

If the words lean and transformation are put together to form “Lean Transformation”, the result is an intimidating scenario. While anorexia nervosa was in fashion many years back, and transformation is still being talked about and in use, lean transformation, LT for short, is neither intimidating nor about slimming. It is all about eliminating waste – and if that leads to a narrower waist, so be it.

When the term was used by Toyota to get out of the vicious “low quality” (some spoke of Japanese quality of those days colourfully as “ yellow quality”, sadly the Indian media was not present in those days to see it as another form of racism and rightly so) many people like Shoji Toyoda, Eichi Toyoda, Taichi Ohno (apocryphally speaking, it was said of Taichi that he was one of the toughest engineers to deal with, and people on the shop floors graced by him swear that, on seeing him near their machines, a collective “Oh no, not him again” would go up) were the founding fathers of the movement, one that would be the forerunner to Toyota becoming an exemplar of quality and lifetime joy for car owners.

This was way back in 1950. Since then, a lot of tsunamis have come and gone in Japan, but the power of LT has not subsided. If anything, it has become stronger and assumed titanic proportions in the early 1990s, when Womack and Jones came out with two books – Lean Thinking and The Machine that Changed the World. Together with the film “If Japan can, why can’t we”, shown and seen by a million American managers in the early 1980s, these books created a sense of tension in the American industry.

After the books, American industry relentlessly worked to adopt Japanese methods, including LT. The fear was that if they didn’t, then they would have to report to Japanese bosses and learn Japanese as well to survive. There can be few things more motivating to a country brought up on the Flag and Apple Pie.

Within a few years, the US industry leapfrogged and the Japanese were left behind. You may already be wondering, what was happening in India? As you might expect, as in all other things, based on the theme “unity in diversity”, a few Indian industry captains took interest in some aspects of lean but not the whole LT. Very few Indian industrialists were willing to go the whole hog. In fact, just getting into TQM itself was quite enervating and, huffing and puffing, a few industry giants and some pygmies as well (in the SSIs and MSMEs) got into the act and crossed the first few milestones.

No doubt even this effort paid rich dividends as many Indian companies shot into fame by getting into supply agreements with international giants – GM, Ford, BMW, Suzuki, to name but a few. Some of the more diligent ones got to winning the Deming Prize – Lucas TVS, Rane Madras, Sona Koyo Steering and lately Tata Steel – a coveted trophy of the highest honour in the world of quality manufacturing.

Over the years, LT has become the norm in many companies all over the world. Like a rolling stone, since NO ONE could copy what Toyota has accomplished, despite the fact that Toyota invites everyone to come to its plants and see for themselves whatever they want to (no confidentiality, full transparency), LT has come to include many factors – TQM, customer intimacy, integrated industrial development, elimination of waste – so much so that many American companies got together to start and run successfully the Lean Advancement Initiative at the MIT (in 2000) which led to further embedment of LT in large corporates as well smaller ones.

More companion initiatives like LESAT, Lean Enterprise Institutes and LT consultants have supported a broad based movement to initiate LT. The latest developments in the world – climate change, environment conservation, elimination of toxic wastes, conservation, sustainability, CSR – have all worked in favour of the core concept of Lean – eliminate wastes in any form.

In Japanese, they call waste as “muda” . In view of the many pressures (as in Kyoto, Beijing, Dubai) many more companies are getting into the “mooda” to eliminate waste and we should soon see the effects in India too.

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