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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jan. 11, 200612:00 PM EST

Expert suggests lean production

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by: Bradley Parsons

by Bradley Parsons

Staff Writer

Sixteen years ago, James Womack examined General Motor’s convoluted supply chain and successfully predicted the auto giant’s slow decline. Womack hopes Jacksonville heeds the warning that GM ignored.

Toyota is expected to soon surpass the Detroit car maker to become the world’s largest, while industry analysts debate the chances that GM will be forced to declare bankruptcy. Toyota won that battle by stripping inefficiencies from its production, marketing and consumption chains. It’s a plan of attack that could prove useful for Jacksonville businesses to stay competitive in a global economy, said Womack.

Womack, the founder and president of the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute, was the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s Regional Workforce Summit. Womack presented his production strategy to an audience of about 300 gathered at the Hyatt. Dubbed “Lean Manufacturing,” the approach seeks to create value at every step a product takes from the drawing board to the customer.

Lean manufacturing started on Henry Ford’s assembly lines. It was later perfected by Toyota. The Japanese manufacturer used the approach to bolster its profits and market share. The Toyota/GM comparison is instructive, said Womack. Those who use lean manufacturing will grow, he said, usually at the expense of businesses that don’t.

That should cause some concern in America, where Womack sees a manufacturing sector rapidly losing ground to developing countries.

“There’s 1.3 billion people in China, and they all want your job, and they’re willing to work for less money,” said Womack.

By wringing value out of every step of the manufacturing process, lean manufacturing can keep American suppliers competitive and preserve their employees’ standards of living, he said.

Womack advised employers seeking to get lean to first take a walk through all of their processes that impact their customers. But, be prepared, he warned. It’s usually not a pretty sight.

Managers are likely to find procedures riddled with redundancies and inefficiencies. Navigating company procedures produces the infamous busy work. In fact, most employees would list as their primary value to a company as “being able to get things done,” said Womack. In other words, their ability to work around the intractable procedures.

“Their greatest value shouldn’t be working around common problems,” said Womack. “It should be finding ways to fix recurring problems.”

At every step of their tour around their company, managers should ask “Does this step create value for my customers?” said Womack. Many will find in the process that their customers are not clearly defined. Rather than catering to customers’ wants and needs, many companies are cranking out product first then trying to convince people to buy, he said.

Jacksonville is the first city to contact Womack about the potential of lean manufacturing. Mayor John Peyton and City Council President Kevin Hyde have taken an important first step in initiating a conversation on workforce strategies, he said. Government can make its biggest impact on the workforce by providing forums like Tuesday’s summit where workforce problems can be candidly discussed, he said. Public schools could also help by teaching children the basics of creating value for customers, he said. The subject is largely ignored today.

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