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Lean Manufacturing: Adapting as Important as Adopting

Lean is a wonderful experience when deployed properly and can be a nightmare when it is not. When properly deployed, a company has productive and relatively happy employees, increased efficiency, on-time deliveries and all sorts of other desirable outcomes. When it is not deployed properly, a company can have angry customers, frustrated employees, late deliveries, quality problems and loss of sleep for top management.

Why should this dichotomy exist? No one has said that Lean manufacturing is easy to implement, but there are a lot of people saying that Lean is applicable and relevant everywhere.

Some use the terms Lean manufacturing and Toyota Production System (TPS) interchangeably. Actually, they are not interchangeable. TPS is a very specific and very good implementation of Lean manufacturing. All Lean manufacturing, however, can not be characterized as TPS.

TPS works very well in a high-volume, low-variety production environment. In that environment it can drive out cost and increase productivity like nobody’s business. Should a company attempt to use the TPS in a low-volume, high-variety production environment, the results are usually very different.

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There is nothing wrong with the application of Lean in that low-volume, high-variety workplace, just in the understanding of what Lean manufacturing is.

The Roots of Lean Manufacturing

Henry Ford developed and used some very specific management tools as he built his Model T factory, a tractor factory or two, airplane factory, component factories and a railroad. The management tools he used eventually turned into what is now known as Lean manufacturing. This evolution occurred after crossing the ocean twice and being interpreted and re-interpreted between languages, cultures, among engineers, accountants, toolmakers and dozens of other specially trained people.

Japanese manufacturers, Toyota in particular, adopted Lean in its manufacturing process and spent several decades refining it while Americans ignored it. By the time it started to come back to the United States, much of what Henry Ford had learned, used and published was forgotten. The methods he had used became somewhat rigid and institutionalized, and in doing so became less adaptable to different manufacturing models.

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When Lean manufacturing returned to the United States in the 1980s, many viewed it as a one-size-fits-all tool. That tool happens to have great value in the right environment but is not readily adaptable to others – for example, job shops, custom manufacturers and short-run manufacturers).

The management tools Henry Ford developed can be used to implement true Lean manufacturing in a high-variety, low-volume plant just as readily as in a high-volume, low-variety plant. His tools centered on observation and adaptation. While that might mean setup reduction and “kanban” stocking in one plant, it did not necessarily mean that for all plants or all the time.

Responsibility for Health of Business

Henry Ford said, “The health of every organization depends on every member – whatever his place – feeling that everything that happens to come to his notice relating to the welfare of the business is his own job.” That statement represents a critical management tool regardless the size of any organization or the complexity of its product or service.

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In most cases, people doing the work are going to know where the inefficiencies and waste are. If they trust management, they will tell managers about them and together workers and management can do something about it. If they do not trust management, then the company – and more importantly, the customers – will continue to pay for that waste.

Trust is a big word in this context. If an organization has an environment where there has been some mistrust for awhile, there are at least two things that management can do to dramatically and quickly increase trust.

Everyone Wants to Do a Good Job

First, there is a part of normal human psychology that can be used. Almost everyone wants to do a good job. It is part of how people are wired. Individuals gain a large portion of their identity and self-esteem from their jobs, and other people’s perception of their jobs. Here are three simple ways to help build employee self-esteem:

1. When an employee has an idea of how to make his job more efficient, listen to them. By just this simple act, a manager can signal to the employee that their ideas are important.

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2. Give quick and honest feedback. The employee will then know that the manager did hear and understand the idea. Whether or not the idea is implemented, a manager must make sure the input is recognized.

3. If the idea is implement, or changes are made because of an idea, give all the credit to the employee.

Whether a company’s management is in a high-trust or low-trust relationship with its employees, doing these things will increase their job satisfaction and increase their willingness to share those things “that happens to come to his notice relating to the welfare of the business is his own job.”

Knowing What Is Being Measured

Second, the company must make sure it is measuring the most important things in its operations, like productivity and quality, and that employees know exactly what is being measuring. If employees understand what is important to the company, they will make those same things important to themselves as well.

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Managers should talk to employees about measurements that the workforce can influence. It is a good idea to focus on the local results, even if the workplace is part of a large, multi-location company. Concentrate on productivity and quality reports rather than income statements and balance sheets. Employees will see this as evidence that management is focusing on their jobs rather than management bonuses.

Do the men and women who work for most companies feel that everything that happens to come to their notice relating to the welfare of the business is his or her own job? Most likely, they do. The job of managers is to get the employee to tell them about it and then do something about these things that come to their notice.

True Lean manufacturing needs the involvement of everyone coming into contact with the company’s product and its customer.

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