Lean Manufacturing in a NutshellLean manufacturing is a topic which has been talked about a lot over the past few years, and it continues to get more attention almost every day. While there can be no doubt that lean strategies in manufacturing and other industries are extremely important, and effective, they can also be confusing. It is impossible to sum up the whole of the philosophy of lean manufacturing in a quick bumper sticker or 30 second sound bite, which is why many people and businesses can feel overwhelmed or intimidated.

Taking the time to get a good overview of what lean manufacturing is, however, is well worth the effort. While it will always be possible to dive deeper into different areas of the lean strategies, it is best to start out with a good high level understanding of what it is and how it can help almost any type of business.

Defining Lean Manufacturing

It is often helpful to apply definitions to concepts so that people can better understand them. Lean manufacturing has been defined differently by many different individuals and companies, but the themes of the definitions tend to center around eliminating waste, reducing lead times and implementing changes in a strategic way. These three concepts need to be a part of any definition of lean manufacturing, because they really make up the core of how lean can help a company. Looking at each of these three individually can be a great way to help understand lean manufacturing as a whole.

Eliminating Waste

This is the most talked about part of lean manufacturing. Finding the sources of all types of waste in a facility, and taking steps to reduce or eliminate it is really the backbone of all lean manufacturing strategies. Identifying where waste is occurring in a company is often easy at first, but over time it becomes much more difficult. This is why the lean philosophy helps by defining different types of waste, or ‘muda.’  The following types of waste were identified using the Toyota Production System, which is where the lean manufacturing strategies got their start:

  • Over-Production – Creating more of a product or service than the customers want to pay for.
  • Wasted Time – Paying people to wait around for parts, orders or other factors. This can also be applied to machinery that is sitting unused.
  • Excessive Transportation – Moving people, inventory or virtually anything else from place to place during the production phase can waste time and energy.
  • Waste of Processing – Adding in additional features or options that the customers don’t want or need adds in expenses, without helping to improve the bottom line.
  • Excess Inventory – Storing any type of inventory can be wasteful. It takes up space, ties up financial resources and exposes the facility to the risk that the inventory won’t ever be used.
  • Unnecessary Movement – When an individual has to stop working to go get additional materials, tools or other items, they are not adding value to the facility.
  • Defects – Perhaps the most obvious, but defective parts or products either need to be scrapped, or fixed, both of which take time, effort and added expenses.

Reducing Lead Times

The amount of time it takes for a facility to take a product or service from the point the customer orders it through to the time it is available is known as the lead time. Eliminating unnecessary steps, streamlining the creation process and improving the product creation strategies will help any facility to reduce the overall lead time necessary. Not only does this help to eliminate a variety of different types of waste, but it also provides improved flexibility to the company.

Reducing lead times will allow the company to take on smaller orders, while still improving the overall profitability. This opens up the facility to taking on additional customers as well as providing better service to the existing customers. In addition to becoming more flexible, reducing lead times will help facilities to run more efficiently, which will allow them to be much more competitive in the industry.

Strategic Implementation

Implementing any sort of lean manufacturing philosophy must be done in a smart and strategic way. Many facilities may be tempted to learn about a specific aspect of lean manufacturing, and take immediate action to put it into place. Without a smart business strategy, however, these changes could cause additional waste and a variety of other problems. Lean manufacturing requires people at all levels of the company to think these decisions through, and learn how they will affect the entire facility.

While this will likely start with the executive management or lean managers of the facility, it really requires a cultural change throughout the company. Encouraging everyone to work more strategically within their role in the facility will help to create an environment that runs much more smoothly, and more in line with the overall lean manufacturing philosophy.

Moving Beyond the Definition

While having a good understanding of what lean manufacturing is, and defining some of the terms and concepts that are used is a great place to start, much more is needed. Lean manufacturing is not a rigid set of rules that will be implemented in the exact same way for each and every company that uses lean concepts. The true power of the lean strategies is in the fact that every company and facility really needs to take the lean philosophy, and figure out how it will best benefit their unique situations.

An automotive manufacturing company, for example, will not need to use the same lean strategies as a company that is creating computer systems. The exact strategies that are used with be extremely different, but the philosophy behind them will always be the same. Lean manufacturing is always going to be focused on eliminating waste in all its forms, as well as providing an environment where a facility can work efficiently at providing customers with the exact goods and services that they are willing to pay for.

An Ongoing Culture of Improvement

While having a good intellectual understanding of what lean is can be important, it is even more critical to be able to change the way people think in an entire facility. When properly implemented, lean manufacturing doesn’t stop at finding waste and reducing or eliminating it wherever possible. The real power behind lean is when an entire facility has a cultural change where instead of focusing on completing the day to day tasks that they are assigned, they begin looking for ways to improve themselves and the company as a whole.

A lean manufacturing facility will be filled with individuals who are working together as a team, with the goal of improving the products or services they are creating, by eliminating waste and other inefficiencies. By constantly thinking about how things can be done better, smarter or more efficiently, the facility will be experiencing constant changes and improvements.

Even if most of the changes are only minor improvements, they will add up to significant benefits not only in the bottom line of the facility, but also in the employee morale and satisfaction. Of course, in addition to the small incremental improvements that lean manufacturing can bring, there will also be the occasional leap forward, which wouldn’t be possible without the initial change in culture that the lean philosophy brought about.

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