You hear a lot of about “lean manufacturing” these days, but it may be hard to figure out what people mean by it. Does it mean reducing the size of the workforce? Does it mean producing fewer widgets? And can it really help us manufacturers in New Jersey become more efficient and sell more products? The answer is, probably, yes.
One reason this confusion occurs is because “lean” is a nickname for a management technique first developed in Japan. “Lean” refers to “lean manufacturing”—a series of concepts originally developed for the automotive industry by Toyota. But it has gradually moved into US industry from the largest corporations to the US military. The model is popular in manufacturing circles today because it is a philosophy that focuses on standardization to reduce time waste, reduce costs, and improve efficiency.
Harley Davidson Used Lean to Create a Turnaround
Here is an excellent example of what lean can achieve: Harley Davidson is the poster boy for this technique. This iconic US brand was on the edge of bankruptcy in 1984. By adopting lean principles to manufacture their product fast and cheap the company was able to rise to become an even more powerful brand recognized worldwide and highly competitive with Japanese motorcycle manufacturers. Details of how this was achieved can be found in Dantar P. Oosterwal’s 1990 book The Lean Machine.
The Primary Elements of Lean: Just-in-Time and Autonomation
As it was developed by Toyota, the core of lean is to put a great emphasis on improving customer value—defining “value” as any action or process that a customer would be willing to pay for. The technique has two main elements: Just-in-time (JIT)manufacturing and “autonomation”—smart automation. If production flows smoothly, according to this Toyota philosophy, there is no inventory and products are produced that include features valued by the customer.
Just-in-time inventory has already been incorporated into the workflow at most large US and international manufacturers. Today, inventories are kept low and electronics allows car dealers, for instance, to order specific cars thousands of miles away; and they may not be delivered for weeks. Anyone ordering a BMW in an unusual color knows they may have to wait for it to be shipped from Germany. The key to JIT is focus on what the customer wants and deliver it after the customer has made a commitment.
The second concept—autonomation—is something that can be incorporated into many aspects of the manufacturing process. For instance, it may be achieved by revamping workflow processes—both physical and in terms of how the process is managed. The “lean facility” is a perfect example of autonomation. This would involve a layout redesign of a facility floor that takes into account making the process more efficient. Many times business problem may be created or exacerbated simply by inappropriate business architecture in layout or material handling.
In developing the facility redesign, lean has within it a structure to take “key manufacturing tasks” and break them down systematically, and then rebuild. The language of this breakdown is telling and an advance for many companies analyzing their facilities. They include product-focused work cells, reduced storage and handling space, direct delivery of raw materials and integrated support.
A Key Element of Lean Less Discussed
Lean also emphasizes a certain type of internal mentoring to create cohesion in the workforce. In Japanese this principle is referred to as senpai and kohai, meaning senior and junior. It is aimed at encouraging lean thinking up and down the organizational structure throughout individuals in the workforce. Some experts believe the closest equivalent to Toyota’s mentoring process would be “Lean Sensei” which encourages companies to seek out third-party experts who can provide unbiased coaching an advice. (See Womack et al. Lean Thinking 1998)
Some experts sum up this principle this way:
Any improvement must be made in accordance with the scientific method under the guidance of a teacher, at the lowest possible level in the organization.
The success of lean in manufacturing has demonstrated that it is a useful concept that can help companies improve the workflow and achieve new goals. Its application to other areas such as the service industry has yet to be proven. But for manufacturers in New Jersey it is something to explore and consider to improve efficiency, workflow, and eventually, profitability.