An overwhelming number of companies have already embraced lean as a business strategy that eliminates operational waste and improves bottom lines. As a foundation, they’ve applied principles of workplace organization, 5S, Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) and Single Minute Exchange of Die (SMED) for setup reduction. More progressive companies have adapted Value Stream Mapping, Business Process Value Streams, and even Lean Supply Chain Connections to continue their journey. Companies know the value of reducing setup time to be able to produce a mix of products at the rate that matches customer demand.
Yet, even within these progressive lean companies, a typical production meeting starts by reviewing customer demand, press uptime, upcoming changeovers, changeover times, tooling availability, press availability and labor available to run the press. During the review, the maintenance manager informs the production scheduler that press number eight won’t be available on Friday because John, the mechanic, must change the bearings and realign the press. It’s an eight-hour preventive maintenance job. The scheduler adjusts the schedule and plans accordingly. It’s understood and accepted that if the press goes down, production could stop for weeks.
Lean is waste elimination
So, are maintenance activities waste? The answer can be found by asking another question: Does the customer want to pay for our maintenance activities? The answer, of course, is “no,” which means, from a lean standpoint, maintenance activities represent a form of waste.
Companies on a lean journey strive to reduce waste. They can reduce setup time from four hours to 15 minutes and, yet, accept the idea that the press must be offline for eight hours of maintenance. Often, this happens because lean is interpreted as being for production only, and maintenance is merely a support function that keeps machines running so production flow doesn’t stop. A lean company might perceive the role of maintenance as simply improving machine uptime by performing rigorous TPM and other activities. While maintenance might do these things to support the lean journey, its true role lies elsewhere.
Lean enhances the bottom line when it’s viewed as a business strategy that eliminates waste. This means that lean should grow market share and increase profits. Lean is about aligning an organization so every employee targets waste (or non-value-added activities) and eliminates it through continuous improvement. This alignment gets everyone to recognize waste and teaches them the principles or tools that reduce or eliminate it.
The best way to eliminate waste is to generate flow. Instead of identifying a problem and a tool to solve the problem, lean uses structured methodology to produce value streams that flow. Hence, lean strives to produce cells and value streams that flow at the rate of customer demand with very little waste.
Eliminating waste is a continuous journey.
Where will your lean journey take you? The answer to this important question can bring alignment to a company, including its maintenance department. It’s commonly said that lean is a never ending journey, or that it’s about the journey, not the destination. In concept, this is true. However, every journey needs a map that, at the least, points you in the right direction, a guideline that shows you’re going the right way, and you’re getting there. Once everyone has the same map, alignment becomes easier, and everyone, including the support organizations, truly knows their role.
It’s a tough question, but when it was posed to me, the answer I gave was quite simple. Your lean journey will lead you to operational excellence. It could be a good answer if only we had a simple way to define operational excellence. Well, here it is: Operational excellence exists when each and every employee can see value flowing to the customer and can fix that flow when it breaks down.
This means that each employee knows that if the product isn’t moving from process A to process B in a specific quantity, at a specific time, to a specific location, something is wrong. Additionally, when something does go wrong (and it will), they know what to do to fix it without checking with their supervisor, reporting to management, or having a meeting. This happens in the office as well, where employees can see a customer order flow through several business processes and can fix that flow when it breaks down.
Think of it as orders flowing from order entry through manufacturing to delivery through an imaginary pipe. At some point the pipe gets clogged and the flow stops. The operators (and maintenance technicians) would know how to unclog the pipe and reestablish normal flow without any management involvement.
Employees produce and maintain a lean flow, which frees management to focus on growing the business.
How does this concept of lean and operational excellence affect maintenance personnel? Start by viewing the maintenance team as value stream team members, not merely the “maintenance department.” As value stream team members, maintenance technicians will understand the relationship between value stream flow, Kanban (sometimes called supermarkets or min/max systems) or first in-first out (FIFO) inventory and equipment uptime.
For example, a supermarket might have four days of inventory because the press it supports has an uptime of 70%. If we can raise uptime to 90%, the inventory drops to three days and the flow time is reduced by a day, all of which gives our customer a more competitive lead time, which drives our own bottom-line results.