Lean manufacturing becoming Leaner

Lean manufacturing has changed the plant floor in many ways and the future promises everything will become Leaner as companies use real-time data to improve operations.


Eric Whitley is director of business development at Leading2Lean. Courtesy: Leading2LeanEli Whitney's cotton gin and interchangeable parts begat Henry Ford's line assembly manufacturing, which begat Toyota's production system. These historical manufacturing methods have built upon each other through ever-advancing technology and have pioneered the way to modern Lean manufacturing.

Along the way, manufacturing consultants have helped plants navigate through all of these methods, optimizing production.

Today, plant leadership is well versed in all things Lean. The abundance of information and cheap resources available empower plant employees to identify and fix problems on their own. This begs the question, why would a plant manager hire a manufacturing consultant to tell the manager what they already know or could investigate themselves?

With so many accessible resources today, it's time to question whether today's plant even needs an external consultant at all. After all, as Henry Ford said, "If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you've always got."


A manufacturing enlightenment of sorts took place in the 1980s and 1990s in which new ideas, techniques and resources emerged. Among them were Just In Time (JIT) manufacturing, the Toyota Production System (TPS) and eventually, Lean manufacturing. In the early days of these methods, consultants played an important role in implementation.

The JIT strategy increased efficiency and decreased waste through accurate inventory forecasting. TPS conserved resources and eliminated waste through management philosophy and practices. Both JIT and TPS were precursors to what we know today as Lean manufacturing.

The book The Machine That Changed the World coined the term "Lean manufacturing" in 1990. This method built upon others that came before it with an added focus on product flow and continuous, value-adding improvements known as kaizen.

As companies began implementing Lean techniques, consultants were educating plant managers on these new strategies and ensuring there was integration at all levels, from upper management to employees on the plant floor. Consultants focused on improving overall equipment effectiveness.


Today, the knowledge, skill and foundation that consultants once instilled have already infiltrated the industry. No new technique, methods or strategies have developed in the last twenty years, and all the existing information has trickled down through plant managers.

For instance, Jeffrey Liker's The Toyota Way, published in 2004, emphasized the management principles and business philosophy behind Toyota's world-renowned manufacturing techniques. However, actual implementation of Lean practices was not the book's primary focus.

Consultants are rarely as familiar with the specific needs of a plant as the employees themselves. Typically, they offer a generic solution in the form of a kaizen event-without much regard for whether the event is even the right one to focus on. The results? Less than hoped for. Initially, it feels like progress is made, but in the end, the top line metrics don't improve. Here's one solution: Use the brains and ideas that already exist within the company. Employees just need the right data, tools and opportunities to make improvements.

New technology and resources have taken the place of consultants with a less-expensive price tag. Answers and knowledge are more accessible than ever, effectively shifting the control and ability to improve to company employees. These resources come in the form of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program, academia for students, corporate training, YouTube, blogs and websites, and emerging technologies.

Among this list of resources, the most revolutionary are the emerging technologies. With cloud-based, Lean technology, companies are succeeding in big ways through transparency, visibility and employing the minds of the people on the plant floor.


What's next for manufacturing? Has the consultant's job become obsolete?

Technology answers the questions consultants cannot. Through tech, the industry has become Leaner at Lean. With access to cloud-based software that provides critical, real-time information, plants can identify and offer solutions to issues as they occur.

Perhaps the biggest innovation in manufacturing technology is streamlined data recording. Lean software creates a single, transparent source for plant information, allowing for standardized data collection across all plant floors. Collecting this real-time data provides more accurate historical data, surfacing the chronic issues so they can be addressed. Plant employees take ownership of their work and are proactive in finding a solution. A better-focused and motivated workforce leads to habits of continuous improvement.

The technologies that will rise to the top are the ones that are easy to use. The best Lean systems have a simple interface that employees experience daily through apps, like Google or Facebook, and require little to no training. These uncomplicated systems empower employees to input the necessary data.

As time progresses, plant leadership will continue to be more self-sufficient in providing solutions for the plant without the help of external consultants, and plant managers will take advantage of advanced technology and the endless resources at their disposal, resulting in Leaner Lean manufacturing.

Eric Whitley is director of business development at Leading2Lean. A former Autoliv TPM Champion, and maintenance consultant, Eric uses lean business improvement techniques combined with Leading2Lean's cloud-based technology solution to improve employee engagement and equipment reliability for his clients. Leading2Lean is a CFE Media content partner.

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