Sunday, November 4, 2012

What is Lean Manufacturing?

A shot down the shop floor

So what is lean manufacturing, it's a term we use often...and one thrown around loosely.  The term was first seen in the work of Jim Womack and John Krafcik (1990) in the book The Machine that Changed the World...using the word to describe Toyota's way of "leaning" the process and inventory.  A great term, and very appropriate for the situation, but the problem with the word "lean", and all great one word descriptions, is that no definition follows.  Words such as flow, just-in-time, cell all have a similar downfall...without knowledge of the whole definition the word can be used in almost any company to describe some process.

In fact, I don't talk to any company leader today who doesn't claim to be in some form of lean or have a cell or two "set-up".  But as American's we kind of miss the boat.  Toyota on the other hand has a deep understanding of "Lean"...which they would never call it, but their "Toyota Way" is what Lean strives to be.  The "Toyota Way" is deep in personal obligation, in a culture not built on tools but the people that came up with those tools.

So 5S, Kanban, Pull System, ect. are all tools brought about because Toyota focused on their people....and they've done this over a long time.  Where the rest of us can benefit is that we can teach those tools to our employees and not have to wait 80 something years for them to develop.  But HOW we teach those tools is critical.

The approach eventually followed in my company is "Here are some neat concepts (lean tools) on how to control inventory, create flow, and stay organized.  On a separate note, here is our goal for the next 6 months, to transform our manufacturing into a assembly line type of flow all based off customer demand.  Now, how do we get there?  The natural response for people when given a big goal is to either ignore it, or stress over the scope of what has to be done.

But by starting to show "example" projects of how to organize, clean, build better flow,  map the process, ect they start to revert to these lean tools to meet the big goal.  

The question still remains for us, have we built a culture that systematically solves problems, or did we just create a "Toyota copycat"?  What i've seen in the last 6 mos in the ways of problem solving and increased organization leads me to believe we are on a good path towards employee involvement...but without constant and consistent management encouragement I strongly believe all these gains will be lost.

So whichever way you go to implement a "lean environment", remember the focus is on the people and not the tools/concepts that others have developed.  Those will come with time, either by your teachings or their design.