Lean manufacturing (LM) business techniques have revolutionized many organizations in the last 20 years, and in recent years, the smaller manufacturing plants have taken the lead from the industry giants. Today, challenged by increased product pressure, greater demand fluctuations and shorter leadtimes, manufacturers find LM necessary, but don't always find that one strategy is best. Many are adopting custom lean strategies to best match their company's individual dynamics. Determining how to implement LM in your company is as important as the process, timing and overall employee integration strategy.
Companies in a variety of industries are implementing lean as a vehicle to improve product quality and delivery performance, to reduce cost and, ultimately, to improve profits. Manufacturers integrating LM benefit from increased uptime, higher cavitation, product production at reasonable cost, higher quality through advanced process controls, efficient work processes and streamlined systems. Many organizations also find themselves reaping the benefits of increased employee satisfaction that results from LM.
Why LM Is an Advantage in the Marketplace
On the surface, LM programs seem to be well-defined—a set of common tools, a methodology focusing on process and an orientation toward improvement. Yet a simple implementation matrix is elusive and often complex.
A variety of disciplines, including Six Sigma, employee involvement teams, ISO 9001, quality control, lean improvement principals and process mapping are all ways to adapt and improve processes on a daily basis. All aim a business toward creating value for the customer and the shareholder. The LM philosophy is a worthy standard, yet its implementation can be deficient. Every industry has its own special characteristics, problems and, therefore, its own LM debates.
The LM strategy chosen should help manufacturing plants explore how to reduce waste in both time and scrap, improve the use of labor, eliminate equipment breakdowns, increase productivity and, ultimately, trim the time it takes to get the order to the customer. The mix should also evaluate the role of changing technology and how it can create opportunities for manufacturers to extend hands-off/lights-out production systems.
LM means engaging in a methodical and systematic process to gain knowledge that leads to breakthrough improvements that will measurably impact the bottom line.
It is a challenge to create a corporate culture that is willing to adapt to LM. Overhauling a process may appear to be straightforward, but it can be an agonizing process. The secret ingredient that makes LM work is building an infrastructure within the organization to support it. A new culture is necessary, and manufacturers need to choose methods that are in contrast to standard operating procedures. It is this focus on the future infrastructure that motivates and produces a lean culture throughout the entire organization.
The right LM manufacturing strategy depends on what products the company sells to which markets and the existing corporate culture of that particular facility. One size does not fit all. Consider the following when planning to integrate LM.
Get Started Quickly
Using an outside facilitator can jump-start the process with minimal downtime. Match the facilitator with a company lean leader and focus this team on identifying an important area of business functioning that needs improvement. Set up defined goals, objectives and a timeline to accomplish them.
The team is charged with observing the process to be improved, in every aspect of its functioning. Staff input is used to acquire needed data. Once the team and management agree upon the needed improvements, an implementation plan is developed.
Focus on One Result
By empowering a lean team to affect significant change quickly, a company can increase throughput almost immediately. Focus is on a single area of concern and over-analysis is avoided. This will require the full-time efforts of members for a short period of time, and the team must be empowered to institute and direct change processes to ensure long-term effective improvement activities.
Companies can upgrade the skills of their workforce by teaching employees the concepts behind LM techniques. Instruction should be primarily hands-on, and employees are mentored and given improvement assignments. This is a long-term process.
Employees can fully integrate what they learn in the classroom and transfer that learning to the production floor. The teacher gains new apprentices as the rollout moves through the organization.
Make a Priority List
Designate a lean leader or team to look over the production process, noting where urgent attention is most needed and which processes, once improved, have the greatest impact. Prioritize the list and develop strategies to systematically address the improvements sequentially.
Workers in the focus area will need to provide input, and the change process will need to be directed and managed by the lean team.
Some employees' mindsets makes LM a tough sell. Anything new and different is viewed with suspicion or, in some cases, is rejected outright. Fear of change is also a barrier to wider involvement in quality initiatives and must be dealt with in the planning phase. Pacing, timing and sequencing are important factors to consider when estimating the degree of resistance expected to be encountered when launching quality improvement initiatives.
The LM initiative has to hit the organization hard enough to command employees' attention. Give the employees a clear goal and communicate the LM process precisely.
Once LM initiatives begin, the change can create a new burst of energy in the organization. LM leaders will need to focus that energy on driving the process forward. Organizations can increase awareness of the common overall production goal by making employees aware of the They Work strategies, repeating the support message often, evaluating the reward system and praising those employees who are adapters and innovators.
Track tangible results against benchmarks for improved productivity measurements and improved profits, such as reduced labor hours per process, increased uptime on a machine, reduction of waste in scrap, elimination of equipment breakdowns, and use them to continue forward progress. Which results, and how they are measured, becomes important. An organization can achieve successes with its first teams, but can quickly fail if its LM effort stagnates and once-ardent supporters become disillusioned.
Design the evaluation up-front, before implementing any LM effort, and include measures of success, such as the degree of employee involvement, targeted goals, the depth and breadth of implementation and the techniques to be used. This means that the benchmarks mentioned above should be determined before the initiative is started, and the goal must be tangible and trackable. Non-stop communication is needed to offset ambiguity, counteract confusion and keep employees focused on the change process.
Creating a culture that embraces and sustains lean processes, as well as implementing lean throughout an entire company, is a long-term endeavor. Investing in employees through professional training, validating their input and providing support through time to encourage the continuation of the lean process, will yield benefits—including innovation and loyalty—for years to come.