Lean Manufacturing: "Been There, Done That"

By Daniel Timco
Manufacturing Engineer and Tech Center University Lean Manufacturing Trainer

"I've seen all this Lean Manufacturing stuff before. Over the last 20 years I've been to classes called Just-In-Time, Flow Manufacturing and Kanban. We've been there, done that and it didn't work. These manufacturing 'movements' are cyclical. Managers come and go and these manufacturing movements come and go with them."

These are some of the comments I've heard from various people at our company when we started our latest Lean Manufacturing efforts.

Take a walk through one of the plants and you may see remnants of past Lean Manufacturing efforts. You may also find a manufacturing cell that has aged somewhat over the years. Much of the Lean Manufacturing that was done in the cell is long gone. Little to no continuous improvement was done over the years.

If you've worked for a large company for any length of time, you've probably been part of a Lean Manufacturing seminar in one form or another. Ranging from a 1-day crash course to a week long Kaizen event. These programs are almost always conducted by an outside consultant who visits your company, does his thing, and leaves as quickly as he came. The concepts are presented at a macro level. The class ends and people file the class binder on their shelf next to the JIT binder from 1982 and the Kanban manual from 1990.

What does all this mean? Is Lean Manufacturing doomed to failure? Have we created a culture of pessimism where people ride the Lean Manufacturing wave hoping it will soon fade away?

How do companies prevent Lean Manufacturing from becoming a passing fad? How can lasting cultural changes take place? How do we cultivate a lasting "Lean" mindset that affects the entire organization?

Here are a few suggestions of strategies being employed at Cutler-Hammer:

Develop experts internal to the company
Instead of hiring a consultant for a few days, develop people internal to the company who are resident "experts". These people can really take Lean Manufacturing to the next level. This demonstrates the company's commitment to lasting cultural changes. These individuals can be used as valuable on-site resources for consultation on special projects. It helps to have someone people can go to when questions arise to help guide those trying to develop their Lean Manufacturing skills. (Look what has happened when these ideas were implemented in the world of Six Sigma with Black Belts and Green Belts).

Go beyond the basics
Most people have a knowledge of Lean Manufacturing at the macro level. The concepts are clear, now go beyond the basics and get down to details. Teach people how to:

  • Develop workcells
  • Implement 1-piece flow
  • Line balance
  • Calculate and setup kanbans
  • Implement poka-yoke

Provide consistent management support and reward successes
Managers must lead by example and show everyone that Lean Manufacturing is here to stay. When successes occur, reward them. These actions communicate the company's long-term commitment to becoming "Lean".

Use equipment that facilitates Lean Manufacturing principles
As the popularity of Lean Manufacturing grows, more and more tools become available that help facilitate these concepts. Some equipment naturally encourages "Lean" and prevents wasteful actions and processes. Examples of this are things like:

  • Workbenches where product is built on moving carts (or pallets) that limit work-in-process and encourage 1-piece flow.
  • Small work surfaces that limit space for unwanted sub-assemblies or clutter which encourages 5 S's.
  • Flow racks that enable first in, first out (FIFO).

This is a good way to help perpetuate Lean Manufacturing on the shop floor even with high turnover of employees. There is no substitute for continuous incremental improvements and training, but these tools can help.

Get people involved
The best way to help ingrain these ideas in people is to get them involved. Training is good, but people have a tendency to forget unless the tools are used. Encourage people to find a project and use what they've learned.

Create buy-in
When initiating a Lean Manufacturing project, select a team that includes manufacturing engineers, design engineers, engineering managers, manufacturing supervisors, operators, purchasing, etc. Not everyone has to be involved in every meeting, but updates on the project's progress should be sent to as many people as possible. In this way everyone is aware of and involved in the changes which are often radically different from what people are used to. Buy-in is created and lasting success is more probable.

History has proved that Lean Manufacturing is here to stay. The question is, "Will your company embrace Lean Manufacturing and make it a permanent company strategy and ultimately a way of life?" The answer to this question will determine whether your company will survive in the ever more competitive manufacturing world that we live in.

About the Author:
Daniel Timco is a Manufacturing Engineer who has spent the majority of his career involved in Lean Manufacturing and has taught various courses on the subject. He has also initiated and led several "Lean" projects and Kaizen events that have been highly successful. For answers to questions or to make comments, contact Daniel Timco danieljtimco@eaton.com.