Why large firms fail to live up to the lean dream

Our anonymous blogger questions whether large manufacturers are as lean as they like to think they are

I have it on good authority that the development teams involved in producing new cars are more likely to be measured in hundreds than in tens.  There is a chance that somewhere on the team there might even be someone concentrating on maximising value or ensuring that the process is lean.

Now I know that there are requirements driven by modern standards – crash testing, emissions regulations and other territorial requirements for global products – but if you compare this with the team involved in developing the original Mini, the difference is quite striking.

I once read that the ‘father’ of the Mini, Alec Issigonis, hand picked ‘the cell’, a team of 5 or 6 who worked with him, along with a couple of fitters, to turn his ideas into reality.  He used sketches to relay his ideas and with the backing of the top management, parts were turned from sketch to metal overnight. The first prototype vehicles were ready to drive after seven months and the final product was launched in less than 3 years.

I have worked in a number of organisations over the years, and I know that on the whole, the bigger the organisation, the harder it is to make things happen. We often joke at my current place of work (a large organisation), that coming up with the engineering solution is the easy bit. The hard part is ‘selling’ the idea and getting ‘buy-in’ from all concerned. 

Priorities, politics and general ‘game playing’ tend to get in the way of common sense or even ‘doing the right thing’ in many organisations, especially, I think, larger ones.

The military have long since used a ‘squad’ (or patrol) size of around 8. In fact the smallest unit in the Roman Army was the ‘contubernium’, a group of 8 soldiers who shared a tent.  I’ve observed that if a working group gets much larger than this magical number, communication and focus become difficult.

If the group is too small then the flow of ideas may be limited and there could be an increased possibility of group-think. So 2 or 3 is probably too small, but anything over 10 is getting too big.

So in an age when large automotive manufacturers talk of Lean Development, have they really developed a way of working that is ‘leaner’ and faster to market than ‘the cell’ devised by Issigonis?  Although I doubt that they have, I think perhaps the crucial difference might have been the leadership of a man who believed, to paraphrase, ‘the public don’t know what they want so it’s my job to tell them.’