Lean Production

Lean Production

I have been reading The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production (1), by James Womack and others from MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program (Content no longer available)  research team. This book caused a sensation 20 years ago with its description of the Toyota Production System. The blurb on the book’s back cover says, “The hallmarks of lean production are teamwork, communication, and efficient use of resources. The results are remarkable cars with one-third the defects, built in half the factory space, using half the man-hours.”

Toyota has, unfortunately, had its problems lately, but the basics of lean production are still worth learning. “Lean” thinking changes the focus of management from optimizing separate technologies, assets, and vertical departments to optimizing the flow of products and services through entire value streams that flow horizontally across technologies, assets, and departments to customers (2). The differences between mass-production techniques, which many companies in the United States still use, and lean production are striking in terms of new product design, the responsiveness of various functional areas to changes in other areas, the nature of the work itself and its rewards in terms of quality and job satisfaction, and the relationships between stakeholders, foremost including customers. Of course, with my view of things, these same lessons apply just as well to the productivity crisis in pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry as they do to building cars.

Why is this interesting to Pharma? If you are a scientist or manager working in the pharmaceutical industry, I recommend that you read the chapters on “Designing the Car” and “Coordinating the Supply Chain.” As you read, think about the relationships between the functional areas in your company or the relationships between the members of your drug development team. See if you can avoid nodding your head in enthusiastic agreement about the ills of mass production and the more enticing lean environment.

The real story here in terms of Pharma, though, is the incredible informatics infrastructure that underlies the success of the lean production process in manufacturing. The lack of that infrastructure, and the attendant failure to formally integrate knowledge across the R&D lifecycle, are two of the components currently missing from the efforts to improve the productivity of the Pharma R&D enterprise.

By the way, if you are of the belief that the current problems facing Toyota somehow invalidate the ideas embodied by lean production, it is worth remembering the immortal words of Winston Churchill from back in 1947, “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (3)

If that knocked your socks off, just wait until you see our next cool topic. And if you want to peruse all of the previous sock-knocking blog entries, visit the Knocked My Socks Off archive. (links to another blog site)

(1) Womack JP, Jones DT, Roos D. The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production. New York: Harper Perennial; 1990.
(2) Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc. (https://www.lean.org/)
(3) Speech in the House of Commons (Nov 11, 1947)