What Can Lean Manufacturing do for Your Company?

by Jenny Knodell, IQS Editor

Lean manufacturing—if you’re in industry, I’m sure you’ve been hearing this concept a lot in recent years. It claims to be a systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste while at the same time, improving the product and maximizing customer value. While it may be true that the recession and mainstream environmental concerns may have something to do with Lean’s new found popularity, it’s actually not a new concept, but rather the business model of many established and successful companies, including Ford, Johnson & Johnson and Lantech. Lean has been in development the last 5 to 6 decades, and the official term was coined in the early 90s. If switching to lean means a higher quality product and higher efficiency and significant savings, why isn’t every company doing it?

Lean manufacturing is focused on changing a company’s management focus—from optimizing separate technologies, assets and vertical departments to optimizing the flow of products. It may sound easy on paper, but this switch usually takes years and a lot of work. To gain a better understanding of Lean, here are the 5 basic principles, which define exactly what lean companies need to do:

1. Value: the foundation for the value stream
2. The Value Stream: planning all the changes that need to be made to eliminate wasteful activities
3. Flow: eliminating all process interruptions
4. Pull: streamlining products/processes from concept to customer usage
5. Perfection: advocating these applications and continuously improving on them

The top reasons companies don’t switch to lean manufacturing are complacency, short-term thinking and opposition from middle management—bottom line, it’s hard. If the company is serious about changing its manufacturing process, switching to lean successfully takes years of work, restructuring, planning and changing standards and protocol—quite the daunting task for one company to take on. But if the lean concept is followed, extreme benefits are sure to follow, including an improved product with fewer defects, reduced inventory, less needed facility space, more manufacturing flexibility, a safer work environment and a noticeable improvement in employee moral.

The first step is to focus on and define what lean manufacturing describes as the 7 wastes:

1. Over production—producing over customer orders, producing unordered materials and goods
2. Idle time—down time, employees waiting around
3. Unorganized transportation—unnecessary handling, delays
4. Excess inventory
5. Motion—movement made by workers that adds no value
6. Over processing—unneeded processes and procedures
7. Defective products

The basic goal of lean manufacturing is to entirely rid a company of these aspects—some are as easy as reformatting storage spaces, while others require revamping entire established processes. In the end, the company should achieve “single piece flow”—the ideal state of efficient operations. That is, batch sizes and lot production that have been completely replaced by working on 1 product at a time. Companies that achieved their lean goal have experienced extreme results. The Lantech Corporation, for example, reduced their employee hours per machine by half, their new product development time by 3 years, their product delivery time by many weeks and the defects per machine from 8% to less than 1%.

If your company is interested in improving productivity, increasing market share, reducing labor costs and eliminating non-value-added operations and processes, perhaps it’s time to look into lean manufacturing.

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