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Taking a Fresh Look at Lean Manufacturing Strategies

Posted by Ho Nguyen

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It’s been at least 30 years since terms like kanban and kaizen entered our manufacturing vocabulary. Is it time to step back and evaluate where lean strategies stand now? Are the principles still relevant in light of the drastic changes in operational processes, global markets, and IT solutions?

To remain relevant, a business philosophy can’t operate in a vacuum. Manufacturers, technology, and the manufacturing workforce have all evolved. It seems logical that lean principles, too, must evolve.

Taking a Fresh Look at Lean Manufacturing Strategies

Updating lean manufacturing concepts to match current business drivers

Data management is one of the key aspects that requires a fresh perspective. Since many of the early books and how-to guides on lean concepts were written, Big Data technology has dramatically transformed reporting and analytics. Now, data can be used to predict market demands, rather than just report on historical transaction trends.

Read more: Big Data in Manufacturing

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Reporting tools are also easier to use, bringing KPI tracking to users throughout the organisation. Users no longer need the help of the IT team to simply obtain a performance report. This ease of use brings a new challenge, though: Over-reporting and data deluge. Here is where the lean guidelines for “keeping processes simple” can help managers control the temptation to over-analyse.

Read more: Data Analytics for Manufacturing: the Tesla’s Case Study

Just-in-time inventory concepts, part of the lean philosophy, also need a refresher. Expectations over delivery dates have escalated greatly. In 1990, a six-month delivery wait may have been tolerated; today, in some industries, six days or six hours may be too slow. 

Just as expectations have drastically changed, capabilities and best practices have kept pace. Raw materials can be shipped faster, received sooner, and put into the production value chain with remarkable speed, reducing even further the need to inventory raw materials.

Even an extended, global supply chain can respond with great agility. This doesn’t mean lean principles can be ignored by warehouse managers. On the contrary, it is more important than ever to manage the complexity, minimize steps, and optimize resources.

Read more: Can Manufacturers Meet Changing Demand without Sacrificing Efficiency?

Shop floor scheduling is the next area that requires a new chapter in the lean manual. Early lean consultants didn’t address technologies, such as 3D printing, smart sensors, and the Internet of Things (IoT), for one important reason: These concepts were little more than visions and prototypes when the Toyota Production System drifted to Western shores.

Can manufacturers reconcile disruptive innovations and lean efficiency? How can a manufacturer balance innovation, which brings some natural waste as ideas are tried and discarded, with the lean mandate to minimize waste? On the surface, the two precepts seem incompatible.

Read more: How will the Internet of Things (IoT) Impact Manufacturing?

“Times have changed. And, in order to remain an agile manufacturer, Lean methodologies must adapt and change too,” says lean advocating blog, The Manufacturing Transformation.  “Otherwise, organisations will remain stuck in the 1950s while the competition soars into 21st-century manufacturing.”

Manufacturers must strive to overcome this fallacy that branching into uncharted territories to develop new products is wasteful, and against lean philosophies. Innovation can’t be curtailed, as it brings the next generation breakthroughs that will continue to inspire growth and investment. Disruptive technology brings some degree of “waste” as new systems and workflows continue to be refined until best practices are reached.

Manufacturers are still on the upward slope of the learning curve, as they work to establish new best practices for on-demand scheduling and “printing” needed components, rather than manufacturing them. Lean concepts can be used to guide the workflows and keep waste in check, without totally restricting some tolerance for the trial and error and experimentation that come with any new approach.

Digital transformation: How to get started right away

Topics: Enterprise Resource Planning ERP

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 Rick Yvanovich
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