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Lean manufacturing: Easier, better, faster, cheaper

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Operations Excellence by Sepp Gmeiner
Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions please email
Lean manufacturing, with all its proven methods seems very complex. Trying to explain what lean manufacturing is, often leads to a lengthy description. However, I feel that if you can not boil it down to a simple sentence, you have not understood the essence of it.
In a blog by Shigeo Shingo, the father of the Toyota Manufacturing System, (lean manufacturing), he talks about the purpose of improvements and uses the keywords: Easier – 
better – faster – cheaper. 
There is also importance in 
the sequence of these words.

Cheaper – faster – better – easier
A reality often observed in companies is that price pressure and other market conditions push us to drop prices. In order to maintain the margin, companies focus on initiatives to make the product and production cheaper. The obvious solution for cost reduction is to produce faster and make up for the loss in margins.
What usually happens then is that errors occur more often and with more serious consequences. Just going faster naturally leads to more mistakes, which negates the improvements in speed. When pushed into this situation you seem to be caught and struggle for marginal and sustainable improvements. Making products and processes better has its own challenges. Now, they are compounded by self-inflicted problems caused by going faster. In this situation, it is difficult to progress in making things easier for the shop floor employees.
This scenario is playing out repeatedly in many companies, leading to frustration and questions about lean manufacturing as the solution.

Easier – better – faster – cheaper
The better way is to start with easier. We need to start on the shop floor and make the existing processes and working conditions easier. This can be simple things like irritants which, in the big picture, do not seem important. But in the context of the daily work, right at the frontline, where the work happens (value added and transformation), it will make a difference.
As the work gets easier, we can be tempted to jump right into faster. However, it is better to use the extra breathing room created by making the work easier and using it for improving the product and the processes to make them better.
With the combined benefits of easier and better, the processes start getting faster (this is a classic example of the difference between push and pull systems).
With the combined benefits of easier, better and faster, the production and the processes also become cheaper. Reduced costs then allow companies to either operate with higher margins or serve the market with lower prices.
Starting the continuous improvement process by focusing on the production workers and making their work easier is the most efficient way! This sounds so simple, that the company management often dismisses this fundamental principal as too trivial and mundane.
With all the complexity and multitude of lean methods, this is the most basic one. In my opinion, when we teach Lean 101, before we introduce 
the group to any other tools, we should just talk about 
this one. The problem is 
that the introduction is done in less than 20 minutes. But by talking about all the other tools, the focus on easier 
gets diluted.
Adjusting your thinking and focusing your improvement initiatives on making things easier for the shop floor gets you to the right starting point.
So, the next time I am asked to explain lean manufacturing in concise terms, I will say: “Making it EASIER for the workers has to be the focus!”

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