Getting Lean Means More Than Dieting

Sept. 1, 2005
“Lean manufacturing, in a nutshell, is the endless pursuit of eliminating waste. Waste is anything that adds cost, but not value, to a product,” states John Allen, principle of Total Systems Development, a Louisville, Ky., manufacturing engineering consulting company.

Some examples of waste include defects, waiting, motion, over-processing, over-production and inventory inefficiency, according to Allen.

But lean can apply to more than just the manufacturing floor, contends Jamie Finchbaugh, a partner with Novi, Mich., education and consulting company The Lean Learning Center. “We’re a little different from others due to our experience implementing lean principles. For us, it’s less a shop-floor ‘move that machine’ sort of process than it is a focus on strategy, leadership and skills.”

Finchbaugh notes that the definition of lean is a moving target. “Our understanding as a community is evolving, because trying to grasp, understand and digest what is happening and where we should go is an ongoing effort. Also, there are many of us in the field trying to move the ball forward. There is always new knowledge, new tools, new skills.”

Lean thinking has its roots in manufacturing, evolving from the Toyota Production System championed by Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno. Practitioners have taken the concept far from its automobile production beginnings. Finchbaugh says, “The heart of lean is in manufacturing, but we also work in healthcare, hotels and other such industries. The bulk of lean understanding is focused on the direct manufacturing and movement of materials—how to set up machines, prepare operators, move machines and the like. However, the same principles work in other places—for example, in order processing. ”

Not just about seeing, lean is about how one thinks. Tools can only help so much before they run out of applicability. As Finchbaugh puts it, “Tools don’t determine behavior—how you think does.” This concept also applies to everyone involved understanding what lean is trying to accomplish. For example, a work cell could be superbly designed, but if the operator doesn’t understand the goals, the effort went for naught. Finchbaugh relates, “We saw where experts from around the world came in and designed a work cell in which the parts were supposed to move smoothly from one station to the next with no other work-in-process inventory. But the operator would pick parts out and stack a few on the floor instead of moving directly from station to station. So all the work of these experts was defeated.”

Another tool is known as “5S.” The five organization tools beginning with the letter “s” are sort, stabilize, shine, standardize and sustain. These form part of the “visual factory” that includes ways to organize a workplace such that things are found easily, and even to reduce dependence on language to find and do things using pictures instead of words.

Eat off the floor

Finchbaugh contends that few people understand the reason for the concepts of lean. “The real reason to implement 5S is to spot problems quickly—not just to clean. A NASCAR shop floor is spotless and white enough to eat from, but the real reason is so that any drop of oil will be seen or any dropped bolt can be found quickly,” he says, in reference to practices typical of National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing crews.

So what should managers do now? Finchbaugh says the first step is to begin applying lean principles to their own work, whether they understand or not. Learn to do the same thing every time. Next is to begin to learn what lean thinking is. It’s hard and not well documented—a little like trying to describe how to tie knots in shoes. We know what it is, but it’s hard to describe. Then just start. Pick a project and a leader and go. “Far too many people are waiting for an epiphany.”

Gary Mintchell, [email protected]