Creating a “Lean Machine”

IN recent years, Lean Manufacturing (Lean) has emerged as a way to simplify processes and speed up the end result for customers.

IN recent years, Lean Manufacturing (Lean) has emerged as a way to simplify processes and speed up the end result for customers. Unlike Six Sigma, which focuses on reducing defects and variations in a process, Lean looks at ways to reduce the number of steps involved in that process. That is, how to eliminate non-value added waste and, ultimately, shrink the time between when a customer places an order to when you receive payment for it.

So what are these ‘wasters’ and where do you start looking for them? Unfortunately, in many cases, the answer lies across most of the organisation. Generally, manufacturers can identify the following seven types of waste, as follows:

1. Over processing

If work is not standardised across the organisation and tasks are over complicated, you are probably doing more work than is necessary to satisfy customers. This could take the form of excessive approvals or duplicate data entry, both of which are unnecessary to effectively service customers. Eliminating this excess administration can usually be achieved by automating processes and combining steps – essentially removing the non-value add tasks.

2. Waiting

If there is any delay between when one process ends and the next begins, you have waste in the form of wait time. This could be due to a lack of ‘standard’ operations, or perhaps because operators are waiting to use shared equipment. The process may also require people to wait for decisions to be passed in – usually in the form of inspections. Eliminating unnecessary approvals and hand-offs and establishing a single piece flow throughout the process can reduce waiting time.

3. Motion

Often in a manufacturing plant you will see a lot of people movement. This could be because workers are searching for information, parts or products – all signs of an environment which is anything but Lean. Workers who are employed to assemble products should do just that; not waste time looking for parts.

It even comes down to how far assemblers need to reach to get those parts – simply minimising the distance a worker has to reach for, say, a wire cutter or a bolt, can have a significant impact on how quickly products move down the assembly line. Just by observing how much movement there is in a plant – either in person or by videoing a day’s operations – you can pinpoint issues and look at ways to improve the process. Sometimes, it can be as easy as changing the layout of the plant, altering fixture design or storing materials differently.

4. Inventory

No matter how much shelf or floor space a company has, chances are it will be filled. This often breeds an over ordering mentality, compounding the issue. The aim is to hold the minimum amount of inventory needed to keep your production line running. Usually, this issue can be overcome by reviewing the design of the plant and determining the quantities you need to keep the plant operating at optimum levels, more efficiently storing inventory and determining what tools workers need to complete their jobs.

5. Moving things

Much like the motion theory, needless movement of work, products or information can slow down the overall process. Things as basic as shipping hard copies to customers for signing or a poor plant layout can mean unnecessary delays. Looking at ways to reduce the paper trail and eliminate pointless files can make a drastic difference.

6. Over production

Are you producing items beyond what is needed for immediate use? Or running credit checks for every customer enquiry? These situations can emerge for a number of reasons – production schedules, cost justification for expensive equipment or perhaps just working on the wrong parts of the process at the wrong time. By reducing lead time and material quantities to the bare essentials, and removing unnecessary paperwork, production can usually be brought back to optimum levels.

7. Defects and inspection

While inspection is important for quality control, it is possible to collect too much data – which slows the production process down. Or, perhaps there’s a situation of “checking the checker” which again, means delays. There is a fine balance between minimising defects and excessively checking work, which can mostly be achieved by establishing clear document procedures, understanding information needs and cross training staff.

Implementing Lean

With some idea of where the typical waste areas are, you can then start considering how to implement Lean into your work environment. The best place to start is with the Five S’s – a methodology we have used across our businesses and for our customers:

Sort – Nothing rings truer than the old adage ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. By arranging every piece of equipment you need in the right place and prioritising each part of the process, you end up getting the job done quicker and more effectively.

Simplify – Start simple. Improving process time can be as simple as cleaning up a bench or re-arranging tool placements. Or, just observing plant operations for a day to see where the hold ups are occurring. The biggest potential pitfall for companies trying to implement Lean is trying to make things more complicated than they really are.

Sweep – Again, it’s simple but sometimes all it takes is a clean up. Once a work area is laid out better, workers can actually see what they need and more easily access tools etc.

Standardise – Without defining tasks and where the responsibility lies, you cannot expect staff to efficiently carry out activities. Only when processes are clearly marked out and communicated at all levels of the organisation can they have any hope of being correctly completed in the minimum amount of time.

Sustain – There’s no point making any changes unless you ensure the habits are well and truly in place. Involve your staff in the process; use them to understand what parts of a process are frustrating and get their input into coming up with better ways of working. By engaging staff, organisations can not only work together better, but are more likely to carry through the changes implemented.

There is always potential for organisations to streamline processes and improve efficiencies. By incorporating Lean into their operations, manufacturers can start down a path of continuous improvement and give themselves the competitive advantage they need to succeed in the current environment.

* Cassandra Fox is quality leader, GE Commercial Finance, Aust/NZ.