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issue: December 2005 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door - Engineering
The Next Level of Lean

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by Art Smalley, president, Art of Lean, Inc.

Not too many years ago lean manufacturing was considered something only suitable for automotive manufacturers and their suppliers.

Other industries often believed their situation was just too different and that lean thinking would not apply. Today, however, it is the rare appliance manufacturer that does not have some kind of Lean or Lean Six Sigma program.

The reasons for adopting these improvement programs are varied. Usually, the reasons include the inevitable need to excel on all three dimensions of quality, cost and delivery, as well as the need to stay ahead of competitors. These are all good reasons. And I’m optimistic about the ability of appliance makers to make improvements using lean principles. But some trends give me cause for concern.

Generalizing somewhat, the typical lean efforts in most companies are characterized by these activities: First, activities are chiefly focused on implementing the tools of lean. Second, efforts are usually based within a single factory setting. And third, there is a special group charged with implementing the program. While this is a good start and it will help companies improve, I fear that it will not be enough to get companies to the next level of operational performance. Based on my experience working for Toyota in Japan, companies need to strive for more. Here’s why.

I often observe lean programs that are organized around the tools of lean. These companies even regularly audit the usage of tools such as 5S, SMED, Standardized Work, Kanban, Value-Stream Mapping, etc., by the use of formal evaluation mechanisms.

Although this may sound counterintuitive, implementing the tools of lean can be problematic. The reason is that we become enamored with scoring highly on the company audit system and we forget the purpose of the tools. A more appropriate name than “tools” might be “countermeasures,” as is frequently used in Toyota. The tools of lean are intended as countermeasures to be used in the course of solving specific problems and driving improvements. SMED was not invented for the sake of using a tool. It was developed because Toyota needed to change over stamping presses more frequently in order to get the right mix of components to downstream welding and assembly processes, and to increase the available time for production on capacity-constrained machines. In other words, it solved a specific operational problem the company was facing at the time. I often advise companies to de-emphasize the use of tools for mere show and re-emphasize the need to solve specific productivity, quality or delivery problems. In the long run, I guarantee that you will get much more benefit.

A second tendency is for efforts to be focused solely inside a single plant. In the days when facilities were highly vertically integrated this might not be a problem. But today’s supply chains are more diverse and the majority of components come from overseas locations. In these cases, where so much of the value is coming from outside sources, the most critical aspect of operations to analyze and improve is often the quality and the material and information flow of these delivered items.

More than once I have visited plants with significant problems in inventory management of supplier components and poor on-time delivery performance to the customer, only to find minimal study of the problems in these areas. Instead, the lean efforts were focused on making flexible “U”-shaped work cells or internal material handling routes utilizing kanban. Again, there is nothing wrong with using these tools, but if supplier components are not always available then the cells and routes will not work as designed. Toyota realized the importance of managing supplier’s quality and incoming material in the early 1970s and created a special task force for improving supplier performance and delivery of materials to final assembly. If your business is highly dependant upon the quality and timely delivery of supplier material, then I suggest that you too focus on improving this area.

Finally, to develop a sustainable lean transformation, develop your people. Most companies have a special group of people known as “lean change agents” tasked with the implementation of lean. It is necessary, of course, to have such dedicated resources in order to get a program started and maintain momentum. But these groups should not fall into the trap of making the improvements happen for the managers in the plant. Long-term success and sustained improvements only occur when the local management team and the production employees that own the actual process are the people driving the improvements. At Toyota there was a saying in Japanese that went “mono zukuri wa hito zukuri.” Loosely translated, this meant that, in order to make things, you first had to make people. In lean efforts, we must not forget that ultimately the system is only as strong as the people that support it, and we can not short cut this development process.

About the Author

Art Smalley is president of Art of Lean, Inc. and a senior instructor for the Lean Enterprise Institute. He is the author of the workbook Creating Level Pull: A Lean Production-System Improvement Guide for Production Control, Operations, and Engineering Professionals, which received a 2005 Shingo Research Prize. If you would like to contact Smalley, please e-mail editor@appliance.com.


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