Not so many years ago, the UScar manufacturing industry was in serious trouble. Globalization exposed it to fierce competitionfrom countries with lower regulatory requirements that allowed them to offer cheaper products. Bluntly, paying lower wages put them at a significant competitive advantage. How could North American car manufacturers compete?
US tech talent stepped into the breach and effectively saved the US auto industry from extinction with an ingenious device that eliminated wasteful glitches in the manufacturing process. Itautomated quality control. The Coordinated Measuring Machine or CMMdetected anomalies in the geometrical shape of the components passing by on the production line, referring all parts back to the blueprints to identify flaws and saving considerablecosts along the way.
The CMM is, in effect, an example of Lean Manufacturing:the application of a set of revolutionary principlescrafted by the Japanese car manufacturer Toyota. They have stood the test of time in improving quality and eliminating costly waste(includinglow-value activities)from production processes, end to end. Today, the technical skills acquired by professionals schooled in lean manufacturing are widely regarded as prized assets commanding enviable remuneration across a vast swathe of industries.
If you’re about to embark on a course in lean manufacturing (like the online masters in lean manufacturing offered by the highly-esteemed Kettering University), you’ll take to your upcoming studies more smoothly witha little preparation. Like having a clear idea about the Five Principals of lean manufacturing.
Let’s take a look at just what these are.
The five principals of lean manufacturing explained
- Defining value
Lean manufacturers begin by identifying and defining what, exactly, customers value in a product or service. What are they prepared to pay? What needs are the products or services meeting to attract this customer valuation? An often overlooked result of that second question is: what features of the product or service add no value to customer requirements? Once those nil-value elements are pinpointed, they can be eliminated.
Designing for maximum value, purged of valueless features, is the elementary principleof lean manufacturing. And it’s often operationalized as “DFSS” – Design For Six Sigma: a set of six techniques deployed to maximize production efficiency and ensure smooth control over every stage of the process. The Six Sigma techniques go by the acronym “DMAIC” for Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control.
These procedures enable companies to “precision-tailor” their products or services to their customers’ clearly defined needs.
- Mapping the value stream
Before you can do this second step, of course, you have to know what a “value stream” is. It means every step involved in a product’s life cycle, from design to customer usage to eventual disposal.
Specialized software tools are now available to assist in this process, chiefly because lean organizations need an accurately documented overview of each aspect of their value streams. The resulting analysis pinpoints bottlenecks and other inefficienciesthat create time delays.
The “map” also locates activities that create value – as well as those that don’t. Not all of the latter can be purged from the value stream, mainly due to current technological limitations. But those thatcan be eliminated will also show up in the mapping exercise.
- Enabling flo
Whilewe’re talking about “streams,” it seems logical to move on to the principle of “flow.”We all know that water follows gravity and flows freely downstream. And that’s the analogy that lean manufacturing applies to the value chain: an optimized value chain should flow as smoothly as technically possible from beginning to end. Any obstacle to that free-flowing process can be identified and recategorized as a form of waste: the waste of waiting (in manufacturing, time costs money and, potentially, reputation).
In other words, lean manufacturing requires the smoothest possible flow of all processes constituting the value chain, requiring their meticulous synchronization.
- Buildingpull-manufacturing systems
Conventional manufacturing adopts a “push” approach: the manufacturerbegins by buying the requisite supplies and then pushing the materials through the manufacturing stages – irrespective of whether there’s an order for them. Unsurprisingly, all too often, the result is excessive amounts of both inventories and works-in-progress (WIPs).Having extensiveinventories increases storage costs, while having high numbers of WIPs multiplies the risk of error.
Pull manufacturing avoids these unfortunate eventualities. It begins not with supply purchase but with a customer order, which is then”pulled” from the shipping department. At this point, the manufacture of new items is automatically triggered to replace the customer’s purchase. This begins with signals to purchase replacement supplies.
Toyota pioneered this “just-in-time” system of manufacturing in the 1940s by matching inventory with demand. Critical to their success was the development of a visualization system, “Kanban,”that made such monitoring of the flow of parts from supplier to storage to assembly line an “at-a-glance”process.
“Kanban” literally means “visual signal” or “signboard,”and digital Kanban boards are their present-day incarnation – widely used in operationalizing the Pull system of lean manufacturing.
- Seeking perfection
While it might be true that perfection is impossible for flawed beings like us humans, seeking it isn’t. On the contrary, it inspires enormous feats of artistic, engineering, technological, and scientific ingenuity and accomplishment.
Unsurprisingly, seeking perfection is perhaps the most difficult of each of the five manufacturing principles to implement in the real workplace. But since it’s a ceaseless process, it always allows for the prospect of correction and refining of identified flaws.
The hidden benefits of lean manufacturing
The effects of lean manufacturing and its five central principles go beyond waste elimination, cost reduction ad efficiency maximization. A 2016 study reported in the Harvard Business Review found that companies with manufacturing plants in the developing world increased their compliance with labor standards (wages, benefits, and rest days). The authors wrote:
“We think that the key to these performance improvements is the new role that workers play in lean manufacturing. While the production system requires more worker skill and effort, employers have incentives to retain these valuable workers through improved working conditions.
“Crucially, neither economic underdevelopment, anemic regulation, nor government corruption prevent manufacturers from reorganizing manufacturing in these ways. However, a lack of managerial know-how and the risks of changing established ways of doing business may still pose formidable barriers.”
So, get your teeth stuck into that master’s in lean manufacturing – and, armed with your new knowledge, become a thought leader for benevolent change.