Manufacturing News

Improving Operations with Lean

People who manage the operational aspects of a company would be familiar with the myriad of tools, methodologies and technologies available to help them facilitate efficient processes and operations. There are countless books, consultants, seminars and even certification programs available to managers who are seeking a better way of doing things.

You can’t spend more than a few minutes in the world of operations management before you begin hearing about Lean. Indeed you may find yourself assigned to a team or position responsible for implementing a Lean program in the context of your own job responsibilities.

What Is Lean?

The first order of business when implementing or bringing a lean program online is to obtain an agreement on what the program is supposed to accomplish. That may seem somewhat elementary, but it is essential. Lean has unfortunately acquired a number of definitions over the years, some of which are not altogether positive. The simple fact is; Lean means different—vastly different—things to different people.

The ‘finance’ use of lean – Lean is good for stock prices. Many investors see lean in the context of expense reduction—reductions achieved mainly through layoffs. The resulting expense reductions are reported against otherwise flat or even lowered earnings as profitability increases.

The ‘public relations’ use of lean – Unfortunately, many companies that fire workers, outsource large segments of the business, or move manufacturing operations offshore frequently do these things under the guise of a lean initiative. Lean in this instance, becomes a word loaded with negative connotations and used in press releases to buffer bad news.

If this is the ‘lean’ your management has in mind for your project, you need to understand that. Your responsibilities in implementing these initiatives are more about damage control and less involved in process review.

The real lean – The kind of lean that backs up successful companies like Toyota is all about the efficiencies realised through focusing on eliminating waste and delivering value to your customer. It’s not a costing-saving strategy, it’s a growth strategy. It positions the company for growth by facilitating flexibility and agility and the ability to accommodate growth.

Getting Lean

Lean initiatives are usually accomplished through the efforts of senior-management sponsorship and team-oriented execution. Lean teams are cross-functional in nature and served by leadership who is comfortable with dealing and working at all levels within the organisation. In addition to a permanent core membership, the team should also have temporary membership representing functional areas directly involved in a given portion of the lean initiative.

Once your team is in place, the planning phase of the project can begin. As every organisation is different this planning phase will vary however, there are some essential points to include in your plan.

  • Enterprise-wide review – This is simply a high-level cataloging of your primary processes. Review each process and compare it with an “ideal” or world-class version of that process. Categorise each process in terms of its own criticality—its relative need for improvement. When you are done, you will have a list of priorities to guide your focus throughout the initial process.
  • Publicise and educate – Your team and the general population of the company will want to know what exactly your team is going to accomplish. This requires getting your team conversant in lean vocabulary and acquainted with lean processes. It tells the rest of the company that you are doing things that will make life better for them.
  • Start with the physical organisation – Years ago, companies had methods and procedures experts who would design workstations for the processes performed there. A lot of this was based in ergonomics. This is a great place to start looking for waste. Wasted movement, wasted effort and wasted space all can be alleviated through the intelligent arrangement of tools on the workstation relative to the person using that station.
  • Product and process – Review processes by examining where and how your product moves through your organisation. Where are errors likely to occur? Where are delays found? Where are unnecessary steps being performed? This is frequently referred to as Value Stream Mapping.
  • Think in terms of cellular design – Rather than designing long assembly lines, look at how the product is actually built. Frequently pulling together tools and processes into a series of manufacturing cells reduces the waste of unnecessary movement and allows concentrated effort to complete larger portions of the build process more rapidly.
  • Look at traditional lean tools – Consider the notion of mistaking proofing processes, employing simple visual controls such as Kanban to reduce the set-up time, the replenishment process and other resource-constraining processes controlled through human language. Kanban signals are far more efficient than calling the warehouse, emailing your supply managers or other error-prone communication methods.

There are numerous methodologies and philosophies offering systematic approaches to lean that are worth investigating and considering including; Total Quality Management, Continuous Quality Improvement and Six Sigma.

The most important aspect of improving your operations with lean is to remember that; lean is a journey, not a destination. Your team should establish an ongoing process to review and report on progress over the long term. Lean is a practice, and that means it must be practiced.

To learn more practical applications of lean methodologies for your business download our whitepaper; ‘A Manufacturers Guide to Operating Lean’.

Lou Washington is a manufacturing expert at Cincom Systems. Cincom offer Configure Price Quote (CPQ) solutions to Australian businesses in manufacturing looking to streaming their sales and better link their front and back end processes.

Cincom have also enjoyed over 45 years providing ERP solutions and modules to businesses in Australia and worldwide.

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