Lean manufacturing is a very popular buzzword these days. Built on the work and success of Toyota factories and the work of many others before them, lean manufacturing, or often called "lean" is system that has emerged as a way of reducing waste and focusing on what's most important – creating value for the customers.
While focusing on the customers and what they might be willing to pay for value, we also need to be aware that every system, no matter how well-conceived and engineered, depends on the human element to make it sustainable over the long haul.
Quick review of the goals of Lean Manufacturing
We have already mentioned to goal of reducing waste, but there are many others that organizations can adopt when they 'go lean'. Included would be:
Striving to improve quality. Value to the customers (them, you, me, everyone) is built on quality. To compete successfully, we need to be aware of our customers' needs, demands and expectations – and we must strive to meet or exceed them.
Reducing time. Wasted time costs money and takes away from our resources. Making reductions in time to complete production and marketing steps are worthwhile goals.
Focus on reducing costs. This helps us avoid over-producing and thus keeps our inventories at a level that is in tune with customer demands. The trick is achieving the right balance so we have enough on hand to meet orders and spikes in demand, but not too much that will burden us with the problems and costs related to storage, deterioration, etc. This formula helps us understand: Price (sales) - costs = profits.
Having a mindset that improvement is continuous. No process is ever perfect, so we need to be always looking at ways to make changes for the better. One sure way to fall behind is by being complacent. The competition can pass us by when we don't act.
Creating a set of tools for all to use. This is a very important aspect of Lean. If the processes and methods make sense, everyone needs to adopt them, practice them and continually try to make them better.
Processes are very important, as are the people who make them happen
Our armed forces are managed by strategies (goals, objectives) and by tactics (actions, processes and procedures.) All are important to the success of any operation or engagement and depend on having the right amount of resources available and following through as effectively and efficiently as possible. If elements are missing, failure looms. In manufacturing, the same things hold true.
Unfortunately, it is often easy to focus on the processes and procedures to serve the customer and forget about the people inside the organization. They have needs and expectations, too.
Watch out for these 'people pitfalls' that can undermine any Lean focus
It all starts at the top. New methods, such as lean manufacturing, require changes in thinking and doing. While some of us adapt to changes more readily than others, change is never easy. The leadership of any organization must support the change and model the behavior. Systems and processes never work when leaders profess and new way to do things, but fail to practice the new methods themselves.
Communication is vital. This includes the introduction by leadership, the answering of questions from others and ongoing communication in all directions as the changes are implemented, tested, modified and sustained.
Team leaders are key facilitators. While top leadership support is essential and communication keeps everyone in tune with the program, local leaders are critical to the success of any change. Team leaders are the ones who are there day-to-day to coach, educate and encourage employees as they learn new things and begin to understand how to apply the knowledge with recently acquired skills.
Training – always and everywhere. Like any other program, lean manufacturing requires a commitment to and patience with training. We all learn at different speeds and not every method works with every individual. The old methods of lecturing, taking notes and taking tests work s for some, but many find it less than satisfactory. People often do better when they can participate. With hands-on learning people can work in teams and learn with their peers under the guidance of a good team leader. The best learning takes place when people can try things, make mistakes, receive constructive, corrective feedback and learn from the experience.