Lean on reliability

Reliability excellence is the foundation of Lean manufacturing.

By Darrin Wikoff, CMRP

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Despite widespread popularity, Lean Manufacturing isn’t meeting leadership’s expectations. The Industry Week/MPI Census of Manufacturers released in November 2007 reports that almost 70% of U.S. plants are using Lean Manufacturing as an improvement approach, but only 2% of respondents have achieved their goals fully and only 24% report achieving significant results. This suggests that 74% of the participants aren’t making meaningful progress with Lean.

Might Lean be the wrong improvement tool? Or, instead, does the lack of success derive from the fact that most organizations aren’t stable enough to adequately implement Lean methodologies?

When implementing Lean, it’s important to gauge the organization’s ability to manage manufacturing assets in a proactive manner and manage manufacturing process reliability through visual controls, metrics and data. It takes a dedicated focus on reliability excellence to build a foundation of stability that accelerates the benefits of Lean.

Lean essentials

Lean Manufacturing is a set of concepts, tools and management prescriptions aimed at strengthening competitive advantages through process execution. Lean also is a culture focused on eliminating sources of waste and preserving optimum performance of equipment, systems and processes.

Lean Manufacturing, from a conceptual basis, originally was practiced within Toyota’s production system as early as the 1950s and has since migrated across geographic boundaries through industrial globalization. The core concepts of Lean that have led to the development of process and supply-chain management tools are Systems Thinking, Theory of Constraints, Mistake-Proofing and Just-in-Time.

Systems Thinking says every business is comprised of economic systems in which goods or services are traded or exchanged for monetary gain. Systems within your business either add to the worth of goods and services (also known as the value stream), or support the supply chain. Based on this premise, Lean Manufacturing methodologies are engineered to examine the enterprise as a whole, then break down the relevant components — systems within the enterprise — to further define those variables that constrain the manufacturing process and prevent performance from reaching full potential.

The role of reliability

In 2007, more than 7,200 professionals turned to the Center for Executive Education at the University of Tennessee (http://TheCenter.utk.edu) to learn Lean best practices. The top reasons why companies choose to implement Lean are pretty straightforward: maximize capital assets, improve customer satisfaction and reduce cost. But while choosing to implement Lean is straightforward, the actual implementation isn’t.

According to Dr. Alex Miller, dean of the Center for Executive Education, the main obstacles to implementing Lean include:

  • Resistance to change from employees (most companies have more issues with management than the hourly employees)
  • Lack of integration of Lean into the overall business plan
  • Lack of stability in current processes, which can occur in the form of people, materials, process variation and machine reliability

Most Lean tools are designed to improve the organization’s ability to identify waste or sources of defects that might produce a constraint in your manufacturing process. However, Lean methodologies and tools aren’t designed to increase your organization’s ability to resolve chronic or complex problems effectively and efficiently. This is the focus of reliability excellence.

Reliability excellence and Lean manufacturing have two common objectives: increase flow and reduce waste. Lean manufacturing can’t reach its full potential in an unstable, reactive environment. Reliability excellence provides the asset stability, process effectiveness and cultural transformation required for a successful Lean implementation.

If a lack of stability can be a huge obstacle to implementation, why is it that the critical link between reliability and Lean gets relatively little attention? “Companies tend to get enamored with the results of a Toyota and fail to realize that Toyota has been working on these methodologies for approximately 60 years,” Miller explains. “Some organizations see a Lean implementation as a three-year to five-year project. They fail to realize that one of the absolutely critical building blocks is equipment reliability.”

Miller speaks from his experience working with a variety of manufacturing environments. “Inventory is an indicator of a weakness in the system,” he says. “Most companies use inventory to cover up equipment reliability issues. When they remove the inventory (i.e. when they adopt cellular manufacturing), equipment reliability issues become a high priority.”

Lean Manufacturing’s aggressive approach to operational improvement and cost reduction requires a significant level of organizational maturity to accurately identify opportunities for improvement that will yield the greatest returns. Simply said, a reactive organization is not mature enough to implement Lean successfully.

For example, in a reactive environment, the maintenance system, (known in reliability excellence terms as Work Control), might be incapable of keeping up with the volume of work requested through programs like Operator Care or autonomous maintenance. In this instance, Maintenance either will defer existing, programmed preventive maintenance or fail to respond adequately to defects identified by operators through the Lean implementation. Both decisions result in lower levels of manufacturing reliability.

Instead, if the maintenance organization is permitted to improve maintainability first, thus producing a more proactive maintenance management system, it will increase its ability to respond to operational requests driven by Lean practices.

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