It has taken a while, but lean manufacturing principles are being adopted by an increasing number of small- and mid-size manufacturers. These manufacturers may not be using the term "lean," preferring to use terms such as "continuous flow," "cellular," "quantity of one" or just plain "common sense manufacturing," but the approaches and results are basically the same. Having seen lean manufacturing principles work in other companies, many companies have realized that their manufacturing processes can be streamlined, resulting in lower costs, better quality and faster customer response.
How do I know that more and more companies are implementing lean manufacturing principles? Mainly by the e-mail and telephone calls I receive. More companies understand the basic concepts and are seeking ways to incorporate these concepts into their own facilities. Having seen the benefits of streamlined processes myself, I find this "wake up call" to be most encouraging. I firmly believe that implementing these concepts is the best way for a manufacturer to increase competitiveness.
For companies that know they must "get lean," but are not sure where to start, I offer a simple three-step approach to achieving and staying lean. These steps are straightforward and can be implemented by any company.
Step 1—training and education on lean manufacturing principles. Training and education should be directed to three levels of employees within a company. Depending on the size of the company, some of these levels may overlap, but the volume of training assigned to each level is important. First, the senior management, or company executives, should receive an overview of key principles. This overview is essential for two reasons—to learn about lean processes and understand the level of commitment required to transform a company to a lean enterprise. Such a transformation does not occur without a commitment of time and resources.
The second group that needs to be trained is the project team, or group charged with the transformation. The project team receives the same type of training as the executive team, but in much greater detail. The project team must be very familiar with key concepts such as cycle time management, organization of work areas, teamwork and minimization of waste. In many cases, members of the team must be comfortable enough with these concepts to be capable of training others in the organization. It is only following a thorough understanding of lean principles that the project team can work cohesively.
Finally, all other company employees should receive an overview of lean concepts. The level of training will be dictated by the particular employee's level of involvement in the first implementation. Everyone in the organization should be told enough to know what will be going on and how it will affect the company and the employees. The timing of the employee training is important. I have seen instances in which training is done too late, and fear and anxiety run rampant throughout the organization. Conversely, when training is completed too far in advance, employees become frustrated at the perceived lack of progress.
Step 2—planning a pilot program. Once the training is completed and the project team is comfortable with lean manufacturing procedures, it is best to plan a pilot implementation. Select a product or family of products that employ typical manufacturing processes used in the company. This product will be reviewed thoroughly and a plan developed for the transition. Planning a pilot implementation will give the project team the opportunity to test ideas and work together.
The outcome of the planning phase should be a map of the changes that are needed. Although unforeseen circumstances will arise, developing a pilot plan will prepare the team for most situations.
Step 3—pilot implementation. Ideally, any physical changes should take place during "off hours." If this is not possible, then a time must be selected that will cause the least possible disruption to the operation. The main role of the project team is to provide support to the staff and address problems that arise. The team should facilitate regular meetings to provide employees with the opportunity to voice concerns and offer ideas for improvement. Assume that the implementation will be dynamic, with changes made in everything from the physical layout to procedures.