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Why Lean Manufacturing Training is Seldom Successful in China

June 17, 2016

 by Renaud Anjoran

manufacturing workers having a discussion

In most Chinese factories, there is virtually no staff training for fear that employees find better opportunities in other companies. As a result, productivity and wages are low, the staff are not motivated, and turnover is high. Most production employees are seen as a commodity (i.e. fully interchangeable). Lean manufacturing training programs are often implemented but fail. Why is this?

1. What Often Happens

Some factory managers get convinced by their customers or foreign partners to implement a lean manufacturing training program. Yet we have heard many stories of such programs that didn’t lead anywhere and didn’t have an impact on the company’s culture. Why is it so common, and what can we learn about that?

We have seen many manufacturers go through the following cycle:

  • Hire a consultant and do a Lean program, then stop after 2 months when some people push back and obstacles emerge.
  • Two years later, do a Six Sigma program because a customer mentioned it, then let it die slowly.
  • One year later, decide that automation is the right thing to do, borrow money, buy equipment, and then try to figure out how to keep it up and running.

The organization’s managers know they need to do something, but they have no long-term vision of WHAT to do. They fall for the latest 'shiny object' and don’t have the muscle to push through on their initiatives.


2. A Better Approach to Launch Lean Manufacturing Training

Here are a few tips, based on our observations of successful Lean transformations:

  • Spend time planning on what Lean initiatives the organization should undertake
  • Visit a few Lean factories, get buy-in from your staff
  • Choose a consulting/training company to help you (note that you can also hire a “lean support group” inside the organization)
  • Then work on it and don’t stop. Research has shown that it takes about 18 months for an organization’s culture to change.
  • Communicate regularly about it, and make success part of everybody’s KPIs.

3. Lean Manufacturing is about Training and So Much More

Training is only one element in a wider scheme. Here is a common approach we have followed for many clients:

  • Teach concepts such as the 7 wastes, one-piece flow, the problem resolution method…
  • Run workshops where those concepts are applied, under guidance from more experienced improvement professionals.
  • Teams are encouraged to try things on a small scale, improve their approach over time, and learn along the way.
  • The scope of improvements changes regularly, so as to provide new challenges for trainees and keep them engaged.
  • Over time, certain employees are developed into supervisors and managers through good management.

4. Beware of Bad Habits

One issue we often see is “micro-management”. Managers want to coach and direct every team under their authority.

This is extremely common in China’s high “power distance” culture where the boss is expected to speak and employees to listen. It sends a message to employees: ‘management knows better, don’t try things on your own’.

One important theme is that management needs to play the game. They need to understand the objectives of the training. Actually they need to be trained themselves too, at a level slightly different from that of operators.

The trainers need to coach the managers, supervisors, and leaders in how to relate to their staff and how to “lead them from behind”. Nelson Mandela used the image of the shepherd who leads his flock of sheep from behind – he doesn’t show them where to go.


Have you undertaken Lean manufacturing training in your factory?

How did it benefit you?

Have the results been lasting? Why, or why not?

Please join our community and offer your questions or experiences as a comment below.



22 Signs Of Good Factory Management in China eBook 


Topics: Lean Manufacturing, Management/Turnaround

Renaud Anjoran

Renaud Anjoran

15 years experience in China.
Partner, China Manufacturing Consultants.
Worked with hundreds of factories in China.
Certifications: ASQ CQE & CRE; ISO 9001 & 14001 lead auditor.
Author of well-read blog, Quality Inspection Tips.

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