Lean is Not a Public Relations Tool

I have to disagree with our friends at the American Society for Quality (ASQ), who I believe recently gave lean manufacturing a little too much credit.

            ASQ issued a news release reporting the results of its most recent Quarterly Quality Report. This report examines the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a measure of the quality of the goods and services as perceived by consumers. It’s a national indicator produced by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in partnership with ASQ and CFI Group. Its sponsors include ForeSee Results and Market Strategies.

            One of the highlights of the latest report is that, in the food and beverage category, Sara Lee had the biggest gain in perceived quality, 4.6 percent. This moved Sara Lee into the ranks of the highest-rated companies, right behind the three companies tied for first place: H.J. Heinz, Hershey and General Mills.

            The author of the Quality Report, Jack West of ASQ, said in a news release, “Sara Lee’s recipe for improvement has been a combination of major restructuring that included shedding of certain non-core food product lines and the introduction of lean manufacturing processes that have improved employee efficiency in their plants.”

            Let’s think about that statement. It is undoubtedly true that Sara Lee sold off businesses and launched lean initiatives. And it is possible that those initiatives have improved the quality of its products.

            But ASQ’s index is a measure of perceived quality, not actual quality. Do consumers really judge the quality of products based on whether the company that makes them has sold off divisions or is involved in lean manufacturing? Do most consumers even have the slightest clue what lean manufacturing is? I don’t think so.

            I’ll admit it is possible that people perceive the products to be better because they actually are better, and the reason they actually are better is lean manufacturing. Frankly, I think that is a bit of a stretch, particularly when ASQ itself says a chief benefit of Sara Lee’s initiatives is improved efficiency – not higher quality. There may be a relationship between the lean initiatives and the improved perception. However, I’m not convinced it’s a causal relationship.

            I’m a believer in lean, but let’s be realistic. While companies have used their lean achievements to impress customers, this generally occurs when the customer is a manufacturer being courted by a supplier. Lean, to my knowledge, has rarely, if ever, been used to impress consumers. And I’m not aware of any PR campaign by Sara Lee to tell people how much its processes have improved.

            Lean can do many things. Improving your public image generally isn’t one of them.



Ralph Bernstein said...

12/6/2006 4:33:43 PM
Re: Lean is Not a Public Relations Tool
By: mygyro

I see your point, but must respectfully disagree. If Lean is applied to the upstream part of the product lifecycle, including pre-requirements stakeholder analysis and requirements definition, then its techniques like Kano Modeling and QFD will directly lead to products that better satisfy customers. And its hard to imagine better customer satisfaction not leading to better customer perceptions.

Whether Sara Lee performed those parts of Lean, I do not know. But in general, a full Lean application should lead to great improvements in customer perceptions. (Witness the fierce loyality of consumers, including myself!, to Toyota products.)

Ralph Bernstein said...

12/7/2006 3:58:01 PM
Re: Lean is Not a Public Relations Tool
By: nomep

I could see Lean as a marketing tool, if that's what you're discussing. I for one (admittedly my feelings probably aren't representative of the general public) would gain respect for a company if I knew they were improving things in their facility. Given the choice between a product of the company implementing Lean and an almost identical product from a compeitor not implementing Lean practices, all else being equal (ie price, quality, etc...) I would give my business to the Lean company.

I think others would respect and give their nod to a company if they knew (or even thought) they were making positive strides in their manufacturing capabilities.

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