The endless journey

For some manufacturers, Lean manufacturing is a goal. For others, it is a destination. It shouldn’t be either one. Lean, like business itself, is a journey. It’s an ever-evolving way to get somewhere. It is not something like a goal or a destination; it’s not something you can achieve.

By Kevin Campbell, Senior Editor August 1, 2006

For some manufacturers, Lean manufacturing is a goal. For others, it is a destination.

It shouldn’t be either one.

Lean, like business itself, is a journey. It’s an ever-evolving way to get somewhere. It is not something like a goal or a destination; it’s not something you can achieve. It’s a path that, when implemented and nourished, can lead to success.

“Lean isn’t a destination; it’s not a goal,” said Jamie Flinchbaugh, a founder and partner of the Novi, MI-based Lean Learning Center and co-author of The Hitchhikers Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road. “First of all, you never get there — it’s a journey. You’re either on the journey or you’re not on the journey. You never actually reach a destination. The minute you think you’ve reached a destination, you’re actually done. You’re off the journey.”

So how do manufacturers implement a successful Lean manufacturing program? They think. They conceptualize what they want so they have clear expectations of the program. Then the journey begins.

Have a clear picture

“The first thing to do is to really make sure you understand why you want to do Lean. Have a purpose,” Flinchbaugh said. “Know why you’re doing it. Without a purpose, you won’t achieve anything, and Lean will just linger and ultimately fail.”

In order to achieve its primary goal of reducing waste in manufacturing, Lean requires clearly defined expectations. Without them, there’s no effective way of evaluating the journey and identifying where changes need to be made. By educating the workers, you help make the expectations clear. But Flinchbaugh cautions about how to educate.

“In the beginning, you’re more likely to educate a critical mass of people with a really clear, tangible goal towards application. Secondly, you need some kind of application with a goal of learning,” Flinchbaugh said. “Your goal is to learn what Lean is all about, what makes it work, how to actually succeed at it. Your activities early on should be dedicated to focusing on accelerating that learning.”

One way to do that, Flinchbaugh said, is to set up what he called a learning laboratory. It takes a small, isolated part of the business and it allows you to experiment with different ideas and techniques. And, because it’s being done with a small part of the company, the effect of mistakes is minimized. “It’s easier to make a mistake with 15 people before you make it with 5,000 people,” he said.

Innovation like Bosch Rexroth’s flowrack ease picking operation and are designed to eliminate excess motion and trasportaion during picking procedures.
Photo courtesy of Bosch Rexroth

After expectations are in place and the education of the staff is underway, it’s time to start laying out the path. Perhaps the most critical thing to remember at this point is that this is the company’s journey. What worked for company ABC down the street won’t necessarily work for every company.

“We are very adamant that there’s no recipe for Lean success. The journey that someone takes is very dependent upon the organization. What you have to pay attention to is the current state of the organization and its goal — what you’re trying to achieve — the resources you have in place and your culture. You need to build a plan that’s suitable for you, so there’s no one next step,” Flinchbaugh said.

Bosch’s implementation

“Bosch as a corporation has its own Lean principles called the Bosch Production System,” said Kurt Greissinger, product marketing manager of manual production systems for Bosch Rexroth. The program is currently being rolled out to all global plants. Each facility is at varying stages of implementation.

One of the early initiatives the company undertook was the reconfiguration of its Buchanan, MI, warehouse. It replaced the warehouse’s rows of flat, standard, warehouse-style shelving units with a flowrack system comprising slanted shelving equipped with roller conveyors and designated picking and replenishment lanes.

“One of the things that we really needed to optimize was our warehousing and inventory management program,” said Greissinger.

Configuring the flowracks to within 6 to 8 feet facilitates picking of material from both sides of the rack, Greissinger explained. Conversely, on the back sides of the racks, the lanes have been opened up wide so that forklifts and other material handling equipment can replenish stock from the back side. This is where the slanted shelves come into play.

“Picture a shelving unit that can store boxes. Now tip the shelves up at a 6-degree angle and put them on rollers, and now you’re able to have the boxes flow from the back to the front.,” Greissinger said. “The boxes roll down a set of gravity-fed rollers to get to the front point for picking. This also ensures that you’re getting first-in, first-out inventory management. So not only are we helping eliminate some of the wastes of reaching, transportation and movement of product, but also some of the wait-time of product.”

An additional component of the flowrack system is its use of visual indicators, or in Lean-speak, kanbans, to alert workers of changing conditions in the warehouse.

“We’ve taken it one step further and color-coded the wheels. We’ve color-coded them green, yellow and red to indicate the stocking level, so now you also get a visual indicator, a visual kanban, that you are running low on material,” Greissinger said. Green indicates a fully-stocked or close to it status. Yellow means the shelf will need restocking soon, and red indicates restocking is needed immediately, he explained.

The Bosch Production System program also addresses concentrations such as standardization, and procedures are in place in other areas to make the facility Lean.

“We’re going through to make sure that everything is easily identifiable, that there’s a place for everything. Everything has been standardized so that it makes finding parts and tools more efficient,” Greissinger said. “From the manufacturing side, we’re studying the processes. We’re putting pedometers on employees to measure how far they need to walk to fulfill an order or to get the parts needed to assemble a system. Then we’re going through and studying all those processes and putting together a new plant layout to eliminate the transportation and motion wastes inherent with that.”

Critical success factors

“Leadership is one of the key factors that determines Lean’s success or failure. And when we say leadership, we mean it in the literal sense of the word,” Flinchbaugh said. He cited several cases of the “management support myth,” where when going to see a company about implementing Lean he was told that management was behind the move.

“That’s nice, but you can’t lead from behind,” he chuckled. “The meaning of the word ‘leadership’ is to be out in front.

“Lean is not born from a bunch of tools,” Flinchbaugh said. “Lean is most successfully born from a way of thinking. Basing Lean on thinking, on principles, is what leads to sustainable change, because our principles and beliefs determine our behaviors, and our behaviors determine our actions. Our actions then drive the results. When I put in Lean tools, all I’m trying to do is change the actions. I’m trying to change what somebody does. But that’s not sustainable if I don’t link that to the right principles”

Integration of the Lean journey to the business journey is a third critical success factor. By integrating Lean, the company is using it as a tool, as a device to accomplish its goals.

“One of our clients a couple years ago launched their annual ‘must-dos,’ and Lean was one of them,” Flinchbaugh said. “The problem was that Lean isn’t a goal. Lean is a vehicle to business results, and so if I don’t integrate the two, it will be this separate thing that we do only when we have time. If I have to consciously turn a Lean ‘switch’ on, and if trying to do Lean starts to get in the way of the business, then Lean is a barrier, not a help.”

Make it your journey

Companies contemplating a Lean manufacturing program have a lot to consider. Like many other business decisions, the choice to go Lean is not one to be taken lightly. Because it’s an ongoing process, not something like a production run or an ad campaign that may have a definitive beginning, middle and end, it requires a much more significant commitment — from the CEO all the way down to the newest employee on the plant floor. So there are a lot of things to keep in mind before making the commitment.

“People have to own their journey,” Flinchbaugh said. “Far too many people get started without really thinking through where they’re going. You can’t just take somebody else’s road map and try to do it that way. You really have to own it and think through it yourself.”

The Bottom Line…

  • Lean is a continuous process requiring constant evaluation and adjustment. It’s not a process to be completed and then left to sustain itself.

  • Own the journey. What works for one company doesn’t necessarily work for other companies.

  • Define clear expectations for each segment of the program before implementing it.

  • There is no specific recipe for Lean success; it varies with every company’s implementation and needs.

    • How to get started with Lean: A waste reduction checklist

      The most important thing to remember about Lean is that it is a manufacturing lifestyle dedicated to the elimination of waste. Ideally, manufacturers won’t produce more than customers need, because inventory is a form of waste. Bosch Rexroth suggests this seven-step checklist for getting started with waste reduction.

      1) Identify waste using a value stream map . Value stream mapping works backwards from delivery to the customer through all of the processes in production, helping to identify waste along the way.

      2) Focus on the most wasteful processes . Don’t sweat the small stuff. After the value stream map is complete, you may be surprised with what it reveals and what you’ll want to want to begin doing. However, be sure that the first attempt at Lean implementation is not the most difficult. Success in the first venture will give all participants the incentive to proceed further in the Lean process.

      3) Re-educate all participants . Lean Manufacturing uses the pull principle: only produce what the customer orders. A line may be capable of producing significantly more than is ordered, but the excess results in finished goods inventory. A Lean line works on TAKT time, the cycle time needed to produce the quantity required by the customer.

      4) Involve your workers . Success in Lean Manufacturing requires worker involvement. No one knows better what happens on the factory floor than the worker. Include them in the process and the kudos for success in Lean implementation to ensure their continued cooperation.

      5) Measure stuff . In order to understand the true nature of waste in your processes, you’ll need data. How long does each operation take to complete? How far do workers walk during the day? Use things such as pedometers and stopwatches to take measurements.

      6) Plan changes, test them with measurements and implement them . This might mean re-designing a workcell, repositioning machines, changing process sequences or a complete overhaul of the way you handle parts re-supply, among other things.

      7) Confirm, measure and celebrate improvements . Then move on to the next level of changes. After you know the new processes work, have a party. Reward all participants and let them celebrate for a few minutes. But don’t stop after round one. You can always find waste somewhere. Ultimate success with Lean means that you’ve created a culture of waste reduction.


      Paul Loftus , industrial practice managing partner for Accenture, has written a