Lean vs Automation

Lean and Automation Working Together

As production has advanced over the years, the techniques and technology we have at our fingertips to improve the speed and efficiency of the things we do have increased tenfold. On the one hand, a new and deeper understanding of lead times and how various elements of production affect each other have led to a better understanding of how we can eliminate unnecessary materials and time from the production process. On the other, technology allows us, now more than ever, to hand off the work in production to robots and machines for hands-off creation.

This two-pronged approach to higher efficiency can be roughly split into two major categories: Lean and/or Six Sigma methodology and automation. In some cases, these two ideas have butted heads over the years, but the reality is that they can actually work together quite well in tandem. In this blog post, I want to break down how the definitions of both Lean and automation in the workplace have evolved over the years, and then talk about how they coexist in a workplace, identify differences between the two, etc. Let’s start with the ideas of Lean/Six Sigma, likely familiar concepts to any of you regular readers of this blog.

Lean Over The Years

For those who don’t know the exciting history of Lean – no sarcasm here, it’s actually quite interesting – the brief version goes a little something like this:  While Lean was only identified by that particular name in the early 1990’s, the concepts were well established in certain production circles long before then. Originally, the backbone of Lean was formed in Japan as the Toyota Production System. The system was known for its focus on eliminating what the company identified as seven specific wastes.

As these wastes were eliminated, it was reasoned, a company would cut costs, lead times, and more to become a more streamlined operation. The methods of Toyota didn’t take long to gain recognition and attention from the international business community, especially as Toyota as a company grew to become the world’s largest auto manufacturer.

Of course, Lean today looks different than it did even twenty years ago. The very fact that you’re reading about the methodology online right now is a testament to this. Now, Lean is a relatively mainstream concept that a wide swath of businesses attempt to utilize. The degree to which they dedicate themselves, and by some extension how effective their efforts are, varies from company to company.

Now, many mainstream blogs and websites help to bring the principles of Lean to the masses, and it’s rare to meet a management professional who hasn’t at least heard of the concept. On the off chance you haven’t, this will not be a complete guide on Lean, but there are plenty of resources out there. In the briefest summary possible: Lean is about the reduction of wastes in your business to help it run more efficiently.

Automation

Automation is a more straightforward concept, though still one that has evolved over the years. At its core, automation is simply about the ability to automate various tasks in production (duh!). These can be small things, like simply moving an item down a conveyor belt automatically, to large things, like machines that complete complex assembly done in the past by hand.

Most of the changes in how automation are viewed, or the possibilities it’s been credited with at various times, are simply a result of the reality of technology in that time period. Fifty to 70 years ago, a machine being able to sense when a bin was full and moving on to fill the next one might have been revolutionary. These days, entire factories run with little to know human involvement are a fairly common reality.

Lean and Automation Working Together

When these issues are posed as “Lean vs. Automation,” it’s easy to assume they’re naturally at odds. While this can sometimes be true, and we’ll get to it later on, it certainly is not always true, and the two ideas can often actually go hand in hand. In most cases, this means that automation serves a function of Lean, let’s take a look at how that might actually look.

Some of the most common waste types that people associate with Lean are time, materials, and, by extension, money. When installing a machine or automated system to fill a roll previously occupied by a person, you’re likely hitting on one, two, or three of these. Here are a few specific ways in which automation might play into Lean goals:

No Need For Training:  A machine does not need to be trained on how to do its job once it’s been engineered, setup, and possibly programmed by its manufacturer. On your end, this means you don’t usually have to worry about training an automated system to do things just right. This saves you time and resources that you would have had to put into training for regular employees.

Defect Rate Reduction:  Machinery also generally greatly reduces variability when compared to the same job being completed by a human being.  Variability reduction is a staple of Six Sigma, Lean’s sister methodology in workplace efficiency. Reduced variability means, among other things, less defective and unusable products, which are wasteful in terms of both time and materials.

Better Precision: More precise operations mean that a machine might not waste as many materials as a human would while performing the same task.  This is especially relevant when it comes to cutting and molding products, depending on how useable excess scraps are in your operations. 

Obviously, a big advantage can be the replacement of an ongoing cost (employing someone to do a task day after day) with an upfront one that pays off over time (a potentially expensive machine or system installation). Oftentimes, however, automation doesn’t have to mean a loss of jobs, but a shifting of attention. For example, automated tasks might free up workers to work in new departments, or to exercise their innovative and creative muscles in a new way. Some of the most exciting and inventive companies in the world are known for having what may seem like overly leisure-focused campuses for their workers to spend their time; you might be surprised by what or who brings the next big idea to your company.

Lean Vs. Automation – Butting Heads

It’s not always all beautiful symbiosis for Lean and automation, however. In some cases, the pursuit of one can’t preclude making good choices in favor of the other. One of the biggest incidence rates of this happening comes from those who are trying to automate their production lines but either cut corners or don’t take the time to properly test and vet equipment. 

Oftentimes, machinery, despite how it might be marketed, is not a one size fits all solution. Ensuring equipment is set to work efficiently in your own setting and that it does not cause more problems than it solves is an art.

As far as I’m concerned, being able to put both of these ideas to work side by side is the ideal way for any business to operate. Automation and machinery play into the basic ideas of Lean in most cases, and, in a cyclical nature, applying to principles of Lean to your machinery can help it run more effectively over time and produce the results you’re looking for.

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