Lean Implementations Don’t Fail

Having worked with many companies that are trying to improve their processes using lean manufacturing techniques, I am more convinced than ever that there is no such thing as a lean implementation that fails. Instead, the failures happen when companies have every intention of implementing lean techniques that will help their businesses, but they do not actually implement the techniques.

Columns From: 2/5/2005 Modern Machine Shop,

Having worked with many companies that are trying to improve their processes using lean manufacturing techniques, I am more convinced than ever that there is no such thing as a lean implementation that fails. Instead, the failures happen when companies have every intention of implementing lean techniques that will help their businesses, but they do not actually implement the techniques.

Perhaps you think this is a play on words, but it really is not. In prior columns, I have discussed the benefits com-panies realize when they embrace "5S"techniques to improve workplace organi-zation, develop manufacturing cellsthat will shorten leadtimes and improve quality, simplify scheduling with "pull systems", reduce unplanned machine down-time using Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) techniques, and increase machine capacity and flexibility using quick change-over techniques. When implemented, each of these concepts makes a company significantly more effective in satisfying its customers and, at the same time, controlling costs.

So, if lean manufacturing techniques will make a company better, what is keeping many from getting started? For some companies, too many things seem to get in the way. Daily events such as critical machine breakdowns, modified customer requirements, an influx of new jobs or employee absence provide just the right excuses for putting things off. Some companies even offer the traditional defensive responses, such as "That doesn’t apply to our business", "We tried something similar once and it was a disaster," or the compelling "Sounds good, but we have no time or resources to do it". Still others say they will address their lean manufacturing implementation "next year," as if things will be any easier a year from now. The fact is that any type of change requires effort, and you can always find reasons for not doing what you know needs to be done. Yet to prosper, or in some cases survive, you have to keep getting better. Lean techniques provide a means for you to start to get better now.

One of the keys to realizing the benefits associated with implementing lean manufacturing techniques is a carefully crafted lean implementation plan. This plan is essential because it is too easy to get distracted by the numerous problems and daily challenges faced by anyone working in a manufacturing operation. Without a lean implementation plan, we tend to lose focus and end up hoping things happen instead of managing the things that need to happen.

The lean implementation plan needs the input of key people in the organization. It is built with desired results in mind and should be clear enough to serve as a road map for everyone involved. Unlike so many plans that end up in bottom desk drawers and are rarely, if ever, reviewed, the lean implementation plan must be a living document. It should be distributed to all stakeholders, who should be urged to post it visibly in their work areas. The lean implementation plan should indicate what is to be done, by whom, and when. It should be updated on a regular basis, with completed action items visually highlighted. Ultimately, the lean implementation plan is a reminder to the entire organization that the clock is ticking.

Another key to effective lean imple-mentations is a strong belief that these techniques really will help your company. Those who have not witnessed first hand the transformation that occurs when companies successfully implement lean techniques may have to take a leap of faith. Yet this is not a great leap. Anyone can find success stories with documented benefits to bolster confidence that these techniques really do work. Your journey to lean manufacturing will not require you to blaze new trails. Instead, you will be walking a path that many have walked before you. There is help out there if you need it.

Lean techniques work because they make sense in any industry. They have been successfully applied in thousands of companies around the world and are being introduced in many more every day. How can anyone really argue against reducing or eliminating waste? How can anyone seriously claim that organizing a workplace will not lead to finding what you need faster? How can anyone really believe that machine downtime is just something we have to live with, rather than an opportunity for improvement? Finally, in this ever-changing world, how can we afford to believe we will survive by simply maintaining the status quo?

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