Lean performance: For no surprises, standardize it

Why standards and consistency are key for peak performance in a lean initiative.

By Bob Argyle, Leading2Lean

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Earlier this year we explored the importance of four basic building blocks for success in lean manufacturing (“4 Building Blocks for Lean Manufacturing,” March 2017) and how technology can make success much easier to achieve. I have seen these building blocks establish a foundation that naturally leads to improved lean performance, if everyone at a plant embraces them.

To recap, the four building blocks are: embracing visibility, providing value to the end user, ensuring ease of use, and providing a mechanism for feedback. Visibility and transparency means using technology to give high visibility and complete transparency in the plant. It is essential that plant workers see the abnormalities that are causing production issues and have the information they need to address them quickly. Visibility doesn’t mean that I receive a report every day (yesterday’s news). It means that current plant status and activities are seen in real time by everyone.

Value to the end user means that manufacturing systems technology should be a tool at the hands of the workforce, rather than an added task. Ease of use is vital because the simpler the technology is to use, the quicker it will be adopted and the more it will be utilized. Finally, any manufacturing system must be able to provide instant feedback. Because information loses value over time, employees benefit most from seeing the immediate effects of their work. Problems must also be identified quickly so that they can be solved with less downtime. All of these are important to effectively lay the groundwork for a sustainable lean culture, as opposed to a short-lived lean project.

As you use technology to establish these four building blocks within your plants, there is another quintessential element that’s needed to scale and accelerate the derived benefits: standardization. We are seeing rapid changes in manufacturing, with many companies expanding through the acquisition of multiple plants, often in different states or different countries – and each with its own existing software systems. Given this evolutionary expansion, manufacturers often find themselves with a wide variety of manufacturing and management systems across their plant sites. This creates significant challenges to overcome for companywide lean performance. Standardization therefore becomes an essential element to fully leverage the building blocks of lean.

Standardization has developed negative connotations for longtime managers and executives in the manufacturing sector. In the past, typical approaches to standardization were costly and risky. For example, standardizing a system meant ripping out the old system and installing a total replacement. The cost of doing that across multiple plants could drastically affect a company’s bottom line.

Plus, production delays, work stoppages, and having to retrain plant workers add to the inconvenience, while the risk of losing continuity and important data is high. In many cases, implementing new systems across multiple locations causes such disruption that manufacturers simply give up and go back to the old system.

However, I believe that frustration with implementation should not deter manufacturers from seeking low-cost and low-risk ways to achieve standardization or from appreciating its long-term value. Standardization at its best equals simplification. If technology is easy to use and understand, its use will increase. Expanded use of technology can lead not only to production of better and more accurate data but also to easier and better interpretation of that data. Effective lean performance is virtually impossible when a manufacturer is working with 10 different systems, all of them in their own silos. 

In every case, the goal of plant operators is to lower the operations threshold to a single common denominator that is easy for everyone to use as they input and access data.

A new era of standardization, with help from the cloud

Fortunately, new technologies are coming online that allow manufacturers to achieve standardization at low cost and low risk but with high reward. Cloud-based technology enables companies to work across existing legacy systems, tying operations together and providing full-plant insights and analysis in real time.

Uniting systems through cloud-based technology not only avoids unnecessary costs and risks, but also it dramatically simplifies the application and deployment of lean performance across an entire organization (regardless of how many plants there are in the network). The cloud provides a way to manage the shop floor in a standard fashion across the board, whether the plant is in Utah, Ohio, or Sweden.

There tends to be hesitancy in the industry when people are confronted with cloud-based solutions, but manufacturers must move past their fear of the cloud. There needs to be more acceptance of the cloud’s value and security, given that it provides a means to work across and tie into many different manufacturing and financial systems. Cloud technology allows manufacturers to pull everything together on a national or global level and allows the sharing of best practices across entire plant networks.

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