Lean Concepts Really Do Apply In All Industries


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I have been asked whether lean ideas and concepts really do apply in all types of industries. As a strong advocate of the lean philosophy, my short answer is: yes. Some will agree, while others take the “we are different” approach. For those who think they would not benefit from applying lean concepts, I offer the following experiences I have had with some interesting companies.

One such company is a service organization that works with cemeteries. The company’s responsibilities vary by client but include landscaping services, excavations for burials and support during burial services. This company focused on two lean tools to help their business. First, they employed value stream mapping to identify some of the wastes in their work-order processing. The tool allowed the company to recognize they were spending a great deal of time on non-value added activities such as “after the fact” checks to ensure accurate information and paperwork processing that served no real purpose.

Some improvements that resulted from this value stream mapping effort included the addition of an auditing step that occurred during key processes. This step improved the quality and the redesign of certain forms to include only the information that provided value to customers. Next, the company employed the 5S technique, which includes sorting out what is not needed, setting in order what is needed, shining the area to maintain cleanliness, standardizing organization ideas throughout the company and sustaining the workplace organization effort through performance measurement and ongoing reinforcement. This effort reduced the time employees spent looking for tools and supplies.

Another company manufactures custom folding cartons and point-of-purchase displays for its customers. Historically, the company focused on making its equipment as efficient as possible, especially its printing equipment. However, maximizing printing efficiency lead the company to make more product than its customers needed. Making excess product, and sometimes even printing multiple jobs during one setup (to reduce setup times), generated high levels of work-in-process inventory. The company used the lean tool of pull scheduling to drastically reduce overproduction. Basically, it did not begin to print a product until it was needed and could be run in the next process. At the start of its lean analysis, the company had close to 20 days worth of printed product sitting and waiting for further processing. After employing pull techniques, this work-in-process inventory was cut by 75 percent. Interestingly enough, there has been no adverse effect on customer delivery performance, even as sales levels have increased.  

A company that processes international mail for its customers has embraced the lean 5S concept to standardize workcenters and simplify the mail-sorting process in a number of its facilities around the country. Visual aids, such as color codes and photos, were introduced to simplify processing. For example, red labels are loaded into red label dispensers, blue labels into blue label dispensers and so forth. Locating needed supplies and equipment in the same position on all workbenches within a workcenter allows any employee to work at any station and know where everything is. This has helped to reduce errors in the sorting process. As workplace organization ideas are developed and proven effective, they become “best practice” standards for all the other divisions.  

Finally, a manufacturer of highly customized hearing aids has put lean tools to work to improve its customer service. Already one of the industry’s shortest lead time suppliers, the company was not satisfied. Whereas many companies use lean techniques to cut days, weeks or even months out of lead time, this company sought to cut hours. For sure, some of the company’s improvements were driven by technology, but others were simple changes to existing processes.

For instance, there was concern about the number of hearing aids that were being rejected by inspectors after assembly. Often, these rejections were for minor things that were overlooked by the assembler. Employing the lean concept of quality at the source, the company introduced a computerized checklist that the operators were required to complete as they were building the hearing aids. The checklist was simple, but it included many of the tasks that had a history of being overlooked. This checklist serves as a constant reminder to the assembler to complete these tasks, and the checklist was set up in a way that the assembler could not close out the work-order without first completing it. With the checklist, the number of hearing aids rejected at inspection has dropped significantly.

So the next time you wonder if lean concepts apply to your business, think of some of these unique companies and the benefits they realized using these concepts.