4 building blocks for lean manufacturing

Give people the data they need to support them in making the changes you want.

By Bob Argyle, Leading2Lean

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Transitioning from traditional manufacturing to a more-efficient lean model is not as easy as simply flipping a switch. There are distinct philosophies and skills that must be embraced by everyone at the plant, a task that can seem a bit daunting. That doesn’t mean, however, that adopting lean principles and embracing a new culture at your manufacturing plant requires years to implement.

Over time and through continuous improvement, “there is a way to achieve things that you don’t necessarily know how you are going to achieve,” Steve Denning wrote in a Forbes article titled “Why Lean Programs Fail – Where Toyota Succeeds: A New Culture of Learning.” The task, he said, “is to lead the learners into developing good habits for working through problems.”

When considering how you can use technology to enable more problem-solving and process improvement, four distinct building blocks will help you establish that lean philosophy for your people on the plant floor. By embracing visibility, providing value to the end user, considering the ease of the system, and providing  a mechanism for feedback, you will effectively lay the groundwork for a lean culture.

Visibility and Transparency

Employing a lean system that allows for high visibility and complete transparency – where everyone can see what everyone else is doing at any given second of the day – is the first step toward creating that new culture.

Why is that important? If an employee can see the exact details of what happened on the plant floor during the previous shift, she will be able to make better decisions. She will be able to easily identify if equipment that has been having the same problem for weeks is still acting up and needs to be repaired. That’s a far better alternative than simply walking into work blind to the problems or concerns from the previous shift.

When people can see what their fellow employees are working on, what problems are happening on the production line, and where those problems are, they can be much more productive and able to make a bigger impact with their work.

Visibility and transparency also give equipment technicians instant access to histories of equipment and operator use which can help pinpoint problems. That information will help technicians as they troubleshoot or perform regular maintenance.

Provide value to the end user

Lean manufacturing systems should be a tool, not a task. These systems must provide value to the end user. In tandem with transparency, a lean system should be designed with that value in mind.

Before adopting lean manufacturing principles, many factories operated in pen-and-paper mode, keeping vague documentation of needed repairs or breakdowns on the line. Statements as simple as “Fixed the machine on line 5” might be filed into a black box, never to be seen again.

When the lean end user considers that his documentation is going to be seen by managers, fellow operators, or even himself in a few weeks, however, he’ll be more apt to include thorough details.

With machinery manuals available at operators’ fingertips, operators will also feel empowered and better-equipped to solve production-line problems immediately when they arise. For example, if a problem happens to a machine repeatedly, operators can get instant access to see what has caused the issue and how to correct it.

Easy to use

For any new system rollout to be adopted quickly by hundreds of employees, it must be easy to use. If a new lean manufacturing system requires a PhD in computer science to use and understand, it’s far too difficult. Ease of use must be a priority for functions throughout the entire system, from data entry and report analysis to accessibility and responding to alerts or alarms.

Lean systems should have the same simple interface that your employees experience daily. Think about how easy it is to navigate Facebook or do a Google search. Most people don’t need complicated instructions. Whatever system you use, it’s got to follow that simple format. If, for instance, information is too difficult to enter into your new system, it isn’t going to get done, which means the system will no longer be reliable.

Lean systems should also require very little training or no training at all. If the system requires numerous training sessions, then your lean system isn’t lean at all. Nobody has time to learn a complicated system out on the plant floor when time is of the essence.

Provide instant feedback - Are we winning?

For a lean system to be completely effective, employees will need to see the immediate effects of their work. Is the company or the production team winning or losing? The best way to capture that sense of immediacy is through real-time analytics.

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