Mining for Gold: A Novel Approach

“Many people try to apply lean tools without doing upfront thinking first.”

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“This is a gold mine...So much happens in a factory that it becomes very difficult to see where value is actually created...Where we will find the gold?”

This is the central question asked, and for the most part answered, in a new book about lean manufacturing, titled “The Gold Mine.” What makes this book quite different from other business books is that it’s written as a novel. Co-authored by a father-and-son team, Freddy and Michael Ballé, the book focuses on the human aspects of a lean turnaround, while using technical details to teach lean principles.

Could a novel address weighty business concepts and confusing Japanese terms, without putting its readers to sleep? Curious, I ordered a press copy from the book’s publisher, the Lean Enterprise Institute (www.lean.org), which is a nonprofit education and research organization founded in 1997 to promote and advance the principles of lean thinking. According to the Institute’s Web site, “The Gold Mine” was awarded the 2006 Shingo Research Prize, recognizing research and writing on lean manufacturing. The Institute has also released “A Leader’s Study Guide to The Gold Mine,” by Tom Ehrenfeld, for lean managers to use with their teams to promote discussion and adoption.

The story revolves around two entrepreneurs who have patented a new high-voltage circuit breaker technology and bought a run-down, bankrupt factory in the hopes of ramping up production and turning a quick buck. Included is the usual cast of characters found in many manufacturing environments. The company founder, brilliant, but a reluctant leader, who is forced to make the tough decisions to become profitable. The vice president of engineering, who is more than happy to throw designs “over the wall,” and stays clear of the factory floor when problems develop. The logistics manager, who pushes back ridiculous requirements onto his suppliers, creating additional havoc downstream. And the lean manufacturing “champion,” in this case, the human resources manager, who quickly grasps the lean concepts and begins to apply them to reduce inventory and waste.

The sensei master

The fictional characters are fortunate to work under the guidance of a sensei, Japanese for teacher or master, in the form of the father of the co-founder’s best friend. Bob Woods is a retired automotive executive who has led many successful lean turnarounds by following Japanese manufacturing principles in general, and the Toyota Production System in

particular. The character is drawn from co-author Freddy Ballé’s experiences as a manufacturing and engineering manager for Renault, and as an executive with several automotive suppliers.

In each chapter of the novel, Woods teaches a new lean principle, weaving it into the manufacturing crises du jour. For instance, Chapter 2, “Gold in the Flow,” discusses Toyota’s seven types of waste—overproduction, operators waiting, excess transport, over-processing parts, unnecessary inventory, unnecessary operator motions and defects—and uses these examples to address the company’s delivery and inventory problems. Other chapters tackle the concepts of takt time, standardized work, pull systems, kanban, the value stream, a gemba attitude (see it for yourself), heijunka (leveling), poka-yoke (mistake-proofing) and kaizan (continuous improvement), among others. Of note is the discussion in Chapter 4 on 5S: seiri (sort and eliminate), seiton (order), seiso (clean), seiketsu (maintain) and shitsuke (discipline).

I’ve always believed that a novel should entertain and educate and, while this one is about manufacturing, it has encouraged me to consider lean principles for any productive activity. As Ehrenfeld notes in the Study Guide, “Many people try to apply [lean] tools without doing upfront thinking first.” This book invites you to think first, then act.

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