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Lean support leads to excellent operations

March 8, 2007
Supporting lean leads to operational excellence.

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.

The trek

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.

Lean maintenance

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.

Maintenance also should work on activities that restrict flow. For example, when a supermarket is nearly empty (or is into its red zone), maintenance understands the relationship between the visual indicator and flow stoppage. When a flow stoppage occurs, maintenance would know the standard work needed to fix the flow, which includes the authority to order parts, get the right technical help and other necessary actions, without having to see a supervisor for guidance or approval.

The theme is this: to support flow, maintenance must first see the flow. Once it can be seen, maintenance can contribute ideas to eliminate stoppages. Some companies never let an operator use a grease gun on a machine because there might be four types of grease that can’t be interchanged. If the grease were to be applied to the wrong fitting, a bearing failure would occur, and the press would be down for days. The result of this thinking is that production flow stops while we wait for a mechanic, who is busy elsewhere, to grease a machine.

If the maintenance mechanics see and recognize the importance of flow, they ought to come up with a solution - unique fittings for each grease and color-coded grease guns and fittings. Then, let operators grease the equipment because we know they won’t make a mistake. The result achieves the goal of maintaining flow.

Try this at home

In the same context, simplify equipment to show normal conditions that maintain flow verses abnormal conditions that stop it. One way to do this is by color-coding machine gauges with green zones that indicate the machine is functioning properly. Operators can tell a machine is drifting to an abnormal condition without having to interpret gauge readings. Develop standard work for maintenance technicians. This doesn’t mean technical procedures, but work balancing with the right number of mechanics to perform instant maintenance. This includes having the correct tools and information at the point of use so a mechanic never needs to look for them while the press is down.

In the world of operational excellence, maintenance looks at its activities in a manner similar to the way setup personnel view a lean value stream. Setup is non-value-added activity that stops flow. Good setup teams act like a NASCAR pit crew. Imagine a team of maintenance mechanics who keep necessary tools ready on a shadow board, on a portable cart, all at the point of use. They have a checklist showing what can be done while the machine is still running and what must be done after the machine is locked out. They follow a synchronized sequence of predetermined standard work. There’s a digital clock that tracks how long the maintenance task is taking. Technicians check the elapsed time during the maintenance event, and if they’re behind, they have a back-up plan that can get them back on track.

Kevin J. Duggan is founder and president of Institute for Operational Excellence in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and the author of "Design for Operational Excellence: A Breakthrough Strategy for Business Growth". Contact him at (401) 667-7299 or [email protected].

When the flow does break down, there’s visible accountability (perhaps a sign) stating the exact maintenance issue, the short-term corrective action, and the long-term solution that helps ensure the problem never recurs. Anyone walking by the press would know that the flow has stopped, there has been a bearing failure, John the mechanic is the team member who is getting the flow operational again, and the flow will resume at 3 p.m. This could lead to a problem-tracking and root-cause problem-solving sheet where diagnostic tools identify and solve the problem so it never happens again.

This scenario stems from organizational alignment towards operational excellence, where maintenance personnel can see the flow of value to the customer, and fix that flow, even before it breaks down.

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