How LEAN is Too LEAN?
Business strategies today drive profitability using many continuous improvement methodologies, including LEAN and Six Sigma, Kaizen, 5S, and several others. Profitability is critical for business sustainability and viability as a going concern. But how LEAN is too LEAN?
Some may scoff at the perceived absurdity of the question. Still, according to the Wall Street Journal Article, “Threat of Rail Strike Reveals Persistent Supply-Chain Risks to US Economy” (Harrison, 12/3/2022), “The strike threat highlighted a distribution network in which businesses have sought to reduce delivery costs by becoming as lean as possible… While the approach has improved profits, it also has made it more difficult to respond to shocks such as a global pandemic.”
In the December 2022 issue of the Turnaround Management Association’s “Journal of Corporate Renewal” (vol. 35, No. 10), the article “Tough Row to Hoe Ahead for the Agriculture Industry” (Zwick et al., 2022) sheds light on the consolidation of food processing companies Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company, and JBS which collectively consolidated their market share in the period of the 1980s through today “… from 36% to 85%.” This consolidation, driven by LEAN principles, reduced significant overhead costs but at the expense of a system that is so lean that the current economic shocks are forcing the consumer to bear the burden of price hikes in food that far outpace the hikes in many other products and services throughout this inflationary time.
Even the labor market’s tightness today is partially driven by the treatment of employees and reductions in force, stemming all the way back to the Great Recession and the Housing Market Crisis. Past decisions on the treatment of people, driving LEAN today for immediate profitability, are coming home to roost as the labor market remains extremely tight despite the Fed’s actions which have historically had the desired impact of slowing the economy at a faster rate than we are seeing today.
As an outcome of the financial crisis of 2007, the Dodd-Frank act was passed. Among the many provisions, it imposed cash reserve levels by banks at much higher than pre-crisis levels. The intent of this additional liquidity was to ensure the sustainability of the financial institutions should another disruption of a similar magnitude occur. Additionally, stress tests were frequently conducted – hypothetical scenarios intended to simulate such shocks and to see how the institution(s) would be able to handle the situation and if the cash reserves were sufficient. As a result, most banks today are in a very secure place, more able to manage and weather such economic shocks than ever before.
So, how LEAN is too LEAN? We see the economic impacts of inflation, supply chain struggles, and the tight labor market, all of which have created a harmful national and even global economic situation that is driving us closer and closer to another recession. We also see the slack built into the banking industry through increased financial reserves intended to weather shocks to their business models and the high confidence that such institutions will survive, and quite well. By lowering cash reserves, there would be more profitability, shareholder value, and even higher dividends. So, how LEAN is too LEAN?
As 2023 unfolds, there will be more economic pain. That is sometimes a good thing. Economic activity cannot go up forever. Markets are never a straight line with an endless upward trajectory. But what comes down also goes back up. Preparing for the coming economic downturn, whether it achieves the definition of a recession or not, and whether it is a severe or light recession if it does happen, is the right business move. History shows us that many business leaders respond to recessions by reductions in staff, pullbacks in production, and other protectionary stances. As you look at what may be right for your business, look at the pending economic downturn as an opportunity to stabilize your business for the future. Build in a “certain” level of redundancy in labor by not reducing your headcount as much. Plan for the curve to shift back upward. As you would on a slick road where your car fishtails, turn into the curve to right size, level set, and propel your company and all the employees who depend on you towards future growth.