I saw it coming the minute my fingers touched the keyboard. Even before that, I saw it coming when Joe Day, chairman and chief executive of Freudenberg-NOK, publicly chastised the auto industry for giving little more than lip service to the worthy cause of lean manufacturing.

At a press conference announcing his own educational Lean Center, Day lashed out at both the Michigan Manufacturing Technical Center in Plymouth, MI, and former DaimlerChrysler manufacturing honcho Dennis Pawley for emphasizing training in the classroom instead of on the shop floor (see WAW — Nov.'01, p.19).

So it should have come as no surprise when my phone rang about a week after the November issue of Ward's AutoWorld hit the streets.

“Hello, Mr. Pawley would like a word with you,” a slightly agitated secretary said to me. Pawley came on the line and was generally cordial. He merely wanted to invite me to visit his Lean Learning Center in Farmington Hills, MI, to learn about his educational mission.

Joe Day has been singing the lean blues so loudly the past decade that some in the industry have probably tuned him out. He's frustrated, and I don't blame him because he's ultimately right: Everyone bows down at the Toyota altar of lean, but none come close to matching Toyota in efficiency.

The debate over lean manufacturing becomes even more heated with the perspective of Manufacturing Performance Solutions, a division of RWD Technologies, a Maryland-based consulting firm. Like others, MPS offers training in lean methods such as value stream mapping, kanban and kaizen, and it offers executive boot camps to ensure buy-in from top management.

The emphasis is on the plant floor, rather than the classroom. MPS has a technology lab in Columbia, MD, and in October it opened an applied technology center in Troy, MI.

RWD set up MPS six years ago. At the time, Ford Motor Co. had hired RWD for an unrelated consulting job, and Ford asked if RWD knew enough about Toyota's lean methods to provide training to the No.2 auto maker.

RWD said it could help Ford, and it began assembling a team of former Toyota employees. Dan Slater, who would become president of MPS, had been the body weld manager for Toyota at Georgetown, KY. He did more than study the Toyota Production System — he lived it, traveling to Japan 22 times before he “got it right.”

MPS went on to help Ford author its Ford Production System, and it provided lean training in seven plants, including the Windsor engine plant and Jaguar Cars plants in Halewood and Castle Bromwich, U.K. In Chicago, MPS guided the Ford assembly plant to vast improvements in quality and employee morale.

Ford's business with MPS ended in December, leaving the Chrysler Group as its biggest customer for lean systems.

So why, after years of chatter about lean, do the Big Three still find themselves mired in massive vehicle recalls, often caused by plant-floor foul-ups (e.g. Ford Explorer tire scrapes)?

“They still need help in engineering,” Slater says. “You have to go back and look at your culture, or you will have problems like scraping tires.”

The problem with the Big Three, he says, is that they “cherry pick” certain elements of the Toyota Production System without embracing it in total. “They don't see it as a holistic approach,” Slater says. “It's a whole system that's integrated, and DaimlerChrysler and Ford don't have it.” He can't comment on GM because MPS has little business with the auto maker.

Slater offers proof. The Big Three make on average 5,000 engineering changes after the first manufacturing trial of a new model. Toyota's average is 250, he says, and the new Camry launch was 50.

Improving the Big Three's performance is a tall task. “It requires additional manpower, and they don't have those people because they're chasing the Harbour numbers for productivity,” says T. Kathleen Hanley, vice president of Lean Systems at MPS who came from Toyota Georgetown a year ago. In some cases, she says, inspections have been eliminated.

That wouldn't happen at Toyota, Hanley says. “Quality runs the Kentucky plant,” she says. Not so for the domestics. “At the Big Three a ‘quality’ post is a career killer. Low performers get those jobs,” she says. “It's the opposite for Toyota.”

MPS has provided training in 60 plants worldwide. It generally stays a year or longer when working with a company.

Dan Slater doesn't know Joe Day, even though Day has been recognized worldwide for his commitment to lean. Day is the king of the kaizen, having conducted 16,000 continuous improvement events at Freudenberg-NOK since 1992.

Slater says kaizens are fine, but they alone will not make a long-term difference. The fix is temporary and generally cannot be sustained. The approach must be holistic, Slater reiterates.

With so many “experts” saying so many different things about lean manufacturing, is it any wonder that the domestic auto makers don't get it?

Speak with one voice, and all will listen.

Listen to Tom Murphy and other Ward's editors Monday and Thursday on WJR 760 AM radio in Detroit.