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Unlocking the potential of Lean manufacturing: Strategies for success

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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

In the quest for operational excellence, businesses have long sought ways to streamline their processes, reduce waste, and maximize efficiency. One approach that has stood the test of time is Lean manufacturing. Lean, often considered a philosophy as much as a methodology, remains as relevant today as it was a decade ago. While many companies start on the Lean journey, not all realize its full potential. This article addresses the fundamentals of Lean manufacturing, how to initiate its implementation, and demonstrates the common pitfalls that can hinder success.

The essence of Lean manufacturing
At its core, Lean manufacturing revolves around delivering value to the customer while eliminating waste in every aspect of the production process. Waste, in the Lean context, refers to any activity that does not add value from the customer's perspective. Lean identifies seven major types of waste:
Overproduction: Making more products than can be sold or needed.
Delay: Waiting for processing, materials, or information.
Transporting: Excess movement of materials and products.
Over-processing: Performing more work on a product than necessary.
Inventory: Committing resources to unsold goods.
Motion: Unnecessary movements by workers.
Defective Parts: Creating products that do not meet quality standards.
The fundamental goal of Lean is to continuously reduce these forms of waste, thus optimizing processes and adding value to customers.

Getting started with Lean: The 5S framework
While many Lean tools and strategies exist, one of the most quoted chapters in Lean manufacturing is the 5S framework. The 5S framework is an excellent starting point for Lean implementation, providing a structured approach to improving housekeeping, and workplace organization and efficiency. The 5S framework consists of:
Sorting: Eliminating unnecessary tools, materials, and instructions, retaining only essential items.
Straightening Out: Organizing everything in its designated place, often using visual cues like shadow boards.
Shining: Maintaining cleanliness in the workspace and equipment.
Standardizing: Ensuring consistency and standardization across workstations.
Sustaining the Practice: Preventing a gradual decline back to old habits.
While 5S improves safety, productivity, and work environment, it may not deliver substantial cost reductions on its own. However, it serves as a prerequisite for more complex Lean initiatives.
It starts with cleaning up the factory and office, a project which does not need major training or capital investment. However, it shows management's commitment to change and providing essential organizational groundwork. So, if you have difficulties in getting 5S off the ground, why would you even attempt any more difficult projects?

Beyond 5S: The deep dive into lean
Lean is not solely about superficial changes such as inventory reductions or renaming minimum-maximum inventory as Kanab. Instead, it focuses on an overall reduction of waste. Successful Lean implementation depends on recognizing that Lean goes beyond the superficial tools. To unlock the full potential of Lean, businesses must embrace a culture of continuous improvement, addressing all seven types of waste systematically.

Batch sizes and throughput time
One aspect that often requires attention is the reduction of batch sizes. Manufacturers traditionally prefer larger batches for reasons such as fewer setups and less paperwork. However, this preference conflicts with product variety, lower inventory levels, and shorter internal factory lead times. Reducing batch sizes requires proportionally reducing setup times. Smaller batches can make the production process more responsive, enabling companies to react quickly to changing customer demands.

Lean implementation: An ongoing process
Implementing Lean is not a one-time switch; it's an ongoing journey. The more a company achieves, the more opportunities for improvement arise. As these improvements are sustained, financial performance tends to improve. The journey towards operational excellence is continuous, and even companies well-advanced in Lean often consider themselves just at the beginning.

Challenges in Lean implementation
Lean implementation is not always smooth sailing. Efforts may stall and resistance to change is common. I will boil it down to three key elements.

There is a huge amount of accumulated, and continuously growing, knowledge of Lean manufacturing. It is obvious that you cannot implement Lean in your factory or operation without anyone in your organization with knowledge of Lean. But this is usually the easiest of the three to obtain. There are a lot of books, ranging from the theoretical and scientific to the practical and hands-on instructions. This is not just printed media, but extends to audio books and YouTube channels. It is amazing how much you can learn by listening to audio books when driving to and from work. Reading and/or listening to books can be enhanced if more people in the company are working through the same books and find a way of discussing possible application within the company.
Also, an excellent method building knowledge in your organization is attending training courses. Training courses are fast and consistent in delivering standardized knowledge. You can send your people to training or bring trainers to your company and have custom-tailored courses on your schedule. Each type has specific advantages, and you need to pick which works best for you.
If you want to transfer knowledge to your organizations quickly, hiring people with pre-existing skills and knowledge is an option. This can reduce the start up curve dramatically. The way to bring in skills and knowledge can be with full time employees, contract workers or short-term consultants.
Plant tours, networking meetings with industry associations and cluster organizations are also great ways to transfer knowledge to your company.

Again, a most obvious key factor! For the successful implementation of any change, you need leadership. This starts with management commitment. The ownership, the president or the operations manager need to show unwavering commitment to the cause. The higher up in the org chart the total commitment is located, the higher the chance for success. It is unlikely that a supervisor can implement Lean in her/his department in isolation. There can be applications of Lean tools, but it is never a full Lean transformation without top management support.
Lean is also a culture change. Changing a culture means that rules and paradigms change for the employees. Change brings uncertainties to the team, as each member needs to let go of existing rules and adopt new ones. Everyone adopts and changes their mind at their own speed. Holding on to old paradigms too long, and others jumping the gun, creates an ongoing crisis which takes leadership to get through. It takes a people person with compassion, good communication skills and the right mix of patience and impatience. A good leader uses the crisis to forge the new team.

This is an often-overlooked factor. Change takes time. Implementing Lean manufacturing is not a short-term endeavor - it is a long-term journey.
After a few years of transformation and visible and measurable progress in Lean manufacturing, I asked the manager of a company about their progress. “We are just at the beginning,” was their confident answer. Even Toyota, who is seen as the gold standard in Lean manufacturing, claims that they are just getting started.
You can push it, or as I prefer to say – pull it – but you cannot rush it.
The other factor with time is how much time do you allow your people to work on Lean.
How much time do you allow employees to be trained and go on training courses?
How much time does management allow for meeting with the employees on Lean manufacturing? These can be management meetings, KAIZEN meetings or regular morning meetings.
How much time do we allow employees to work on designing KANBAN storage, going through all steps of Five-S (5S), or implement any other of the tools in the extensive Lean toolbox?
It needs time and resources to sustain any progress. 

Two out of three is not too bad, or is it?
There are probably other factors, but just bear with me and look at these as the main three. What happens if you do not align all three of them.

1. Leadership + time, but no knowledge
This is not uncommon in larger companies. There is management commitment right at the top, and there are directives to allow for time for implementation. However, the employees have not been trained and they do not have the knowledge of what to d
The result can be summarized in: Everybody participates, but no one knows what is going on!

2. Knowledge + time, but no leadership
This is chaos! Implementation takes place at different locations in the company. The different initiatives are arguing on the right interpretation of what should be implemented and when. Everyone is doing their own impression on what is right.

3. Knowledge + leadership, but no time
Most companies are trimming their staffing levels to the bare minimum. Everybody already has a full-time job in fulfilling their current job requirements. So, when starting on your Lean journey and not allowing time to do the work, what will you get?
Something has to give! If it is not a priority and insufficient, or no time, is allocated - you will fail. With no time allowance you push and get the project started, but it will not be sustainable and will fizzle out. Management will see no progress, will call more emergency meetings, will repeat the restart under shear management pressure and will die again in a short while. If it is not prioritized and not given resources an implementation cannot be sustained.

Alignment is the key
To minimize frustration and missed opportunities due to failed and delayed implementation, alignment of all three key factors is required.
You do not have to be excellent in all three elements, but none of them can be omitted or neglected completely.
If you follow a good roadmap and understand the basics, it is not difficult to start your Lean journey.
Lean manufacturing remains an effective strategy for optimizing operations and delivering value to customers. Implementing Lean is not a one-time project, but a continuous journey. By addressing the key challenges and maintaining alignment among knowledge, leadership, and time allocation, companies can unlock the full potential of Lean and achieve lasting improvements in efficiency, quality, and customer satisfaction, and minimize possible stalls and setbacks.
And if you are stuck, pull over and ask for directions.

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