Lean manufacturing principles yield production benefits

The debate surrounding the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. continues. Many maintain that manufacturing has experienced a significant decline in recent years due to the relocation of many companies to offshore sites where infrastructure and labor are less expensive. Others maintain manufacturing job loss is a natural byproduct of enhanced technology that has eliminated the need for workers to complete manufacturing processes.

Regardless of your position on the issue, most of us probably would agree that the U.S. remains a major manufacturing nation, selling and exporting more than at any other time in its history.

man moving cans in manufacturing plantOne of the reasons for this country’s continuing dominance has been the integration of lean manufacturing principles based on the original Toyota production system designed around waste elimination. Although these techniques were created in the automotive industry, the principles can easily be adapted to other industries and workplaces.

For instance, consider the following tenets of lean manufacturing:

  • Changeovers – the process of reducing time for a product to move from machine to machine or work station to work station.
  • Waste elimination — a continuing search for waste, not only of materials, but also of time.
  • Supplier management — supplies delivered in smaller amounts to reduce the need for storage and inventory management.
  • Problem solving — use of systematic tools and processes to remove challenges and barriers.
  • Organization — maintaining supplies in an efficient system, incorporating solid cleaning practices designed to enhance safety and time management.
  • Process mapping — developing flow and process charts for common practices.

Any operation would benefit from better integration of these principles. The lean philosophy is a systematic blend of innovation and problem solving that improves the bottom line. Although it’s been implemented on the manufacturing shop floor for more than 25 years, the recent adoption of lean practices can streamline processes and eliminate waste from office, business and administrative processes as well.

Experts in work flow tell us that 60 to 80 percent of all costs related to addressing customer demands is in the administrative and non-production or service-related functions of a business. Reducing that percentage can only add customer value. Here are some steps you can take to introduce lean principles into your operation:

Clearly define your processes. Practitioners of lean call this “mapping the value stream,” but it really boils down to writing down the steps that comprise a process in your company and analyzing it for wasteful steps or duplicative actions. Ask yourself who the end users of the process are and whether you are meeting their requirements. Are there any steps in the process that don’t directly help meet those requirements? Is the work load distributed equitably? Are the work areas efficiently organized? Is the process handled on a “just in time” basis? In other words, does the work arrive at each station in a smooth and timely progression, or are their long lags in time when one worker waits for something from another? Is there a continuous flow of work, or is there a stack of work at one station that backs up the entire process? Do you need to reassign resources to eliminate lag times or times of excess demand?

Improve data collection. If you do not collect much data on your administrative processes in terms of time, worker and supply demand, you may need to start. For instance, if one of the goals in your business is to reduce the time it takes to gather receivables, you may need to think of your invoices as the product you are producing and collect information on the number of invoices issued, the number of days required to issue an invoice, the number of days to receive payments, the number of days to process payments and the total cycle time for the process to be completed. Only then can you identify where there are bottlenecks and delays in the process.

Eliminate waste. All activities in a work process are either those that add value, those that do not add value but are required for legal or regulatory reasons, or those that are just wasteful and can be eliminated without any negative impact. Examining each step with a clear, objective eye and categorizing them appropriately can help you identify what to eliminate, combine or modify.

Another lean principle with universal applicability whatever your organization is the principle of 5S — a protocol for ensuring individual work areas are free of clutter and organized for effectiveness. 5S stands for:

  • Sort: the elimination of all unnecessary items from the workplace.
  • Set in order: the creation of efficient storage methods to arrange items so they are easy to find, use and store.
  • Shine: thoroughly clean the work area.
  • Standardize: record the best practices in each work area to create a consistent approach to how work is done.
  • Sustain: making a habit of the four preceding steps, is often the most difficult, as old habits are hard to break.

Try to follow these steps just in your own office or work space, and reap the results.

Every business and organization continues to face increasing customer requirements, the need to reduce costs, competition and shorter lead times. Implementation of lean manufacturing principles into any kind of business will ultimately improve the bottom line and increase customer satisfaction.