David Drickhamer,
Editorial Director
ddrickhamer@MHMonline.com

Although the "lean" movement began on the factory floor, today the process-improvement philosophy and tools have made significant inroads into warehouse and distribution operations. After all, what good is a world-class factory if you have the same old, waste-ridden supply chain?

Lean thinking has also begun to transform the back offices of some manufactures and distributors, as well as the administrative processes within insurance companies, banks and even healthcare facilities. No matter what industry, a concerted focus on eliminating wasteful activity can be a very powerful tool for directing resources toward what customers really want. (See page 23 for some of the traps to avoid when implementing a lean or Six Sigma improvement program.)

One area where lean has had little impact, if any, is government. From the local license bureau to the legislative process in Congress, the government bureaucracy rolls on oblivious to opportunities for improvement. Personally I'm frustrated every election day by the batch-minded setup at my local polling place, which segregates voters by last name. This always leads to some voting booths with long lines (always mine) and others with no line at all.

Beyond voting at election time, it's standard editorial practice when presenting news about pending legislation to urge readers to get involved and contact their state and federal representatives to make sure their voice is heard. But given the amount of influence you're likely to have, is it really worth the effort? For improvement-minded managers accustomed to making changes and moving forward, is there really anything you can do to have an impact on what goes on in Washington?

When I asked this question to John Nofsinger, CEO of the Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA, Charlotte, www.mhia.org), he invoked a quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck, "People who enjoy sausage and respect the law should not watch either being made."

Whether it's pending legislation, regulatory issues or the setting of industry standards, he says that people and organizations tend to get involved and can have an impact on what could directly influence them on a daily basis.

"The quickest way for us to get support on anything is for there to be a short-term threat," says Nofsinger. As an example he cites the periodic attempts by the elevator industry to regulate vertical material lifts. Such direct threats allow organizations and people to maintain focus over the long legislative or standard-setting process.

"Rarely is it a slam dunk where you galvanize interest and two months later you see the result. It's usually something that needs constant influence over time," he adds.

Staying informed is one key to identifying threats and maintaining that long-term focus. See the summary in this issue of the legislative issues pending before the new U.S. Congress that could have an impact on material handling businesses in 2007 (page 32). Beyond the standard setting activity of industry associations, lobbying organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers (www.nam.org) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (www.uschamber.com) do a great job of keeping members informed about legislative and regulatory activity.

Back to the question asked above. Whether it's worth trying to influence legislative activity or standards setting processes, or just sit back and react to whatever happens, will depend on the issue. But keep in mind that in all aspects of life and business there are "doers" and there are "done to's." It's always better to be a doer.