Lean manufacturing in a nutshell

Mick Tolliday, Managing Director of Zentec takes a look at how lean manufacturing can transform the work environment.

Embarking on the road to a Lean Operation is not for the faint hearted as the road ahead is long and arduous.

Along the way, there are many pitfalls that might be encountered that will hinder or interrupt progress; one of the largest is that of the attitude of people towards a change program at all levels of the organisation.

Lean is a set of principles that guide us towards the goal of the elimination of ‘Non Value Add’ activities that we generally refer to as the 7 Wastes.

In each of our work environments, we can find example of Waste all around us. It is only when we take a little time to stand back and observe what is really occurring that we are able to identify Waste elements of the process.

We generally think that processes are running fine, but when we spend time watching, we soon realise that there are many little problems that are choking the process and preventing smooth and efficient operation.

These ‘minor problems’ are where our real problems begin. Minor problems become ‘fixed’ at a local level which invariably means that the problem receives a symptomatic solution not a root cause solution. A process full of symptomatic solutions quickly gains levels of waste that slow the process down.

The tools of Lean which support the goal of waste elimination are many and varied, some being more applicable then others in differing environments; however, one thing is for sure – they will not work if there is no adherence to them once they are applied. This is not a ‘flavour of the month’ approach.

Coaching and encouragement are the order of the day from boardroom to locker room. Each member of an organisation has a key role to play in realising a Lean Culture in the workplace as it is only when the culture is in place that the true benefits of Lean are gained. Highly efficient operations that run at relatively low cost are key features of any Lean enterprise.

Changing to a Lean Culture is hard work. Traditionally we are used to working within a results based environment and our success is measured by the results we achieve. In reality this is like skating on thin ice – it is only a matter of time before it cracks. Lean is more ‘process’ focussed and seeks to place emphasis on the sustainable, repeatable, method of operating. If the process is robust, then our results will be too. Shifting our focus does not occur readily and attitudes need to change.

After spending time and energy on a Lean transformation, we expect there to be clear benefits to the new way of operating. One of the main indicators is factory productivity, as opposed to factory output, since we expect our existing resources to be used more effectively.

Within the overall productivity improvements, there are contributing actions and effects such as Quick Changeovers, low inventory levels and shorter lead-times among others.

The sustaining of these benefits is of utmost importance to all employees as it is from this base that the whole company will gain it’s competitive advantage in the market. A nimble and responsive company will be able to adapt its process to the prevailing market conditions. It can steel itself against adverse market conditions and conversely is readily able to adapt to increased demand in a growing market. The major benefit of a Lean Enterprise is its ability to balance all of its processes to exactly match the customer demands.

Work group structures aside, there are tools of Lean that can give an immediate effect on the operational efficiency of the process. The 5S (Sort, Set, Shine, Standardise and Sustain) run through the whole of a Lean Enterprise and can be applied in many ways.

The most obvious is on the workshop floor where their application leads to significant reductions in set up times through reduced Waiting time (searching for tools and data).

We all know the phrase ‘A place for everything and everything in it’s place’ yet this is rarely applied well in the workplace environment. The concept of 5S is not restricted to workshop actions. It is wholly applicable in administration functions of all kinds from IT to QA.

As an example, within a woodworking company, a 5S program and increased plant output by over 5% within one week.

Implementing 5S coupled with Standard Work and Line Balancing allowed another company to increase the output on their top 5 Stock Keeping Units (SKU’s) by over 50%, one of which saw the lead-time reduced by 78%.

Additionally, quality levels increased considerably through the application of balanced work to defined standards. This meant that the old methodology, where one employee looked after all aspects of build, was replaced with a new methodology that included the concept of One-Piece-Flow.

Now a team of operators each builds a section of the whole and gives feedback immediately where defects are detected.

Looking at one-piece flow and line balancing shown in <a href=’http://www.e4engineering.com/content_images/leanx1.gif’ TARGET=’_top’>Figure 1</a>, we can see that the output of the traditional batch and queue environment is restricted by the bottleneck process number 3 which was uncovered during the Value Stream diagnostic phase. Changing the layout to bring interacting processes closer together the concept of One-Piece Flow was introduced. Now the work environment has been balanced to customer demand or takt time line and the bottleneck removed, hence the process begins to flow freely.

These concepts can be applied to any environment whether it is administration work, processing or manufacturing. They have a dramatic effect wherever they are applied.Implementing these concepts into a heavy engineering factory, as shown in <a href=’http://www.e4engineering.com/content_images/leanx2.gif’ TARGET=’_top’>Figure 2</a>, gave some large benefits to the plant as we can see in the following example.

Clearing the working area with a 5S program gave immediate improvements in output. This was then linked with standardisation and work balance to give and even flow through whole plant. The next step was to begin to co-ordinate the sub-assembly manufacturing areas into a JIT system using Kanban as the instruction for starting sub assembly construction, as shown in <a href=’http://www.e4engineering.com/content_images/leanx3.gif’ TARGET=’_top’>Figure 3</a>.

All employees were involved at each stage of the change, as it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the 7 Wastes are reduced continually. The net results, as shown in <a href=’http://www.e4engineering.com/content_images/leanx.gif’ TARGET=’_top’>Figure 4</a>, speak for themselves and each of the employees felt justifiably proud of their achievements.

In summary, it is possible for any process or operation to undergo a Lean Manufacturing Transformation and take the benefits of that change. It is not a quick process as grasping new concepts and applying them is not always easy. Neither is the sustaining of the change once it is made.

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