Principles of what have become known as ‘lean’ manufacturing were first developed as part of the Toyota Production System (TPS) and have become increasingly popular ever since. While the term is applied today to sectors ranging from hospitals to office workspaces, it remains best-known for its principles in manufacturing.
Lean manufacturing is about diligently eliminating waste and errors from the manufacturing process. While many companies worldwide continue to embrace the philosophy, the process is by no means stagnant.
Along with reducing waste and mistakes from manufacturing, another fundamental lean objective is maximizing value with fewer resources. Even the best-run operations have room for improvement, and this can come from moves such as optimizing production processes or eliminating waste by reducing defects in manufactured products. There are many methods which can be used to reduce errors and backlogs in production and services.
Some people, like James Womack and Dan Jones – the authors of Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation – have even forged successful careers based on the principles. The two went on to found The Lean Enterprise Institute Inc., a 501(c) (3) non-profit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They inspect for the five fundamental principles of value, value streams, flow, pull, and perfection. They then examine muda – Japanese for waste, eliminating steps which do not create value in the pursuit of manufacturing perfection.
One of the most important lessons to be had when implementing lean processes is to stop making the same mistakes over and over. As rudimentary as this might seem, repeating the same error is detrimental to the entire lean process and negates any gains to be had from eliminating defects in raw materials or the manufacturing process itself.
Examples of mistakes to avoid repeating can include shipping the wrong product, entering incorrect data, or delivering items to the wrong address. One way to eliminate these blunders is mistake-proofing, known as Poka-Yoke in Japan. Poka-Yoke is also known as ‘inadvertent error prevention,’ and corrects, prevents, and draws attention to human errors as they happen. Through habit and repetition, the behaviour of operators is changed and shaped, with the goal of eliminating potentially costly mistakes or defects. As well as getting rid of errors, this method has many other benefits, ranging from immediate quality control to lowering the rate of rejected products and having to spend less time training workers on other areas of quality control.
Another way for manufacturers to reduce/eliminate errors and waste in their processes is through automated test systems. The systems have the goal of improving operations and can be introduced in a production environment and used on items which are being assembled manually or through semi-automated processes. Version controls are tracked using electronic documents as are verification and validation management.
Automated test sequences have the benefit of saving time and human resources from manual work. Worldwide, companies manufacturing automated test equipment deliver a range of products from software or hardware only to full, turnkey test systems used by well-known manufacturers such as General Electric, Carrier, and Mitsubishi Electric.
For any manufacturer or organization, backlog presents problems. Products must be made, packaged, and delivered to customers in a timely fashion. If this does not happen, backlogs occur, and workflow grinds to a halt. Employees become reactive instead of proactive, goals become misaligned or forgotten, regular tasks become sidelines, and what was once easily-digested information becomes overwhelming and unmanageable.
There are a number of reasons backlogs happen, and, unfortunately, many of them are the result of human nature. One such reason is hoarding. While we may think we are doing a good job by holding onto vast amounts of information, there is something to be said for being selective and discerning what is important and what can be discarded. Other issues include not breaking down information and tasks into smaller, more readily-manageable amounts. When failing to do this, backlogs grow and become uncontrollable, and – as is human nature – workers tend to become avoid dealing with unpleasant tasks and end up becoming overwhelmed by work.
Fortunately, there are methods to combat backlog successfully. One of the simplest is devising a clear-cut strategy to handle the backlog and get other workers to contribute and play a role in the process. By having a plan to deal with them, delays look less formidable than they really are, and when kept in the loop, employees have a greater awareness of deadlines and other factors.
Along these lines, another way to deal with backlog is to divide the obstacles into stages, such as working towards existing challenges and working on fresh, new ideas. This can be addressed internally or through management tools to control existing backlogs, help prevent future accumulations, detail costs along the way, and more.
From reducing errors and backlog to reducing waste, lean – particularly when it applies to manufacturing – is continually evolving. While some rules may seem rigid, many of the objectives are the same: lower waste, reduce the cost of making a quality product, increase labour productivity, lower production costs, and reduce inventory costs.
Many methods of increasing production and striving for continuous improvement like just-in-time production, Poka-Yoke, and Jidoka – detecting defects through automation – are actually quite simple and include means of eliminating human error. A step can be as simple as installing large signs in warehouses indicating maximum heights to prevent accidents.
While technology will always play a role in lean manufacturing, companies must never lose sight of their greatest asset – the employees. Lean processes are proven to improve production; however, they are nothing if their human element is lost. Unlike machines, people are emotional and prone to stress. To combat this, companies should ensure the objectives of the business are in alignment with those of the employees and ensure failure and success is acknowledged. Likewise, it is essential to maintain a challenging work environment without placing unnecessary pressures and demands on workers. For manufacturers embracing lean principles and practices and combining them with the human element, success can be achieved and maintained long into the future.