Shops and plants committed to lean manufacturing often speak of the “lean journey.” In this journey, one step reveals the next step, as the shop solves big problems to uncover problems that are not quite as big, and on and on. However, another sort of lean journey may be the journey that the work itself takes—or doesn’t take.
The National Council for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM) recently offered a briefing that connects lean manufacturing to the trend toward “network-centric manufacturing.” Beyond lean, says NACFAM, comes a network of more intense collaboration within supply chains. But the document does not address a more fundamental point I think is also important—namely, how lean manufacturing brings this nation’s shops and plants (as opposed to overseas suppliers) into those supply chains in the first place.
Another metaphor like “journey” that is useful in describing lean is the notion of “islands.” A shop’s inefficiency is its water level, and the problems that can be seen are the rocks that stick out. Other problems (other rocks) are fully submerged. Remove those rocks and lower the water level, and the next set of islands will be revealed.
The inefficiency in this image—the water level—consists of all the sources of delay and impediment that force a shop to accept big lead times or batches. Plants may carry a lot of this inefficiency. The burden favors far-away suppliers, because the complexity and cost associated with geographic distance become just one more source of inefficiency that may be small enough to stay lost beneath the existing water.
Think about it like this: A shop has a certain amount of cost resulting from inefficiency. Call it “I.” A more distant shop has its own inefficiency, but also has costs related to distance. Call these latter costs “D.” The comparison is thus I + D versus I. If I is large in this comparison, then I + D may not seem all that much bigger. However, as I approaches zero thanks to lean, the far-away shop’s I + D looms larger and larger as a multiple of I, even if the distant shop manages to improve its efficiency as well.
True, lean alone is not the answer. Knowledge and technology are important, too—as is communicating what your shop’s lean process can do. However, an advantage unique to lean is the way it enhances the value of being a supplier located close to the end user. Thanks to this advantage, the lean journey may include a journey home.