Which way do you LEAN?

At its core, Lean manufacturing is about taking waste out of the manufacturing process. It means finding the hidden barriers to productivity through a systematic, system-wide approach to how everything on the plant floor gets done. It is measured, precise and unyielding.

By Bob Vavra, Editor March 15, 2008

At its core, Lean manufacturing is about taking waste out of the manufacturing process. It means finding the hidden barriers to productivity through a systematic, system-wide approach to how everything on the plant floor gets done. It is measured, precise and unyielding.

“Lean is always a journey,” said consultant Douglas Anton, president of the AEM Consulting Group. “You don’t get there in six months.”

If it is a journey, it may feel at times more like an exercise wheel than a path. Continuous improvement means continuously going around again, looking for more waste. It means expanding the reach of Lean throughout your organization and into your supply chain.

For others, Lean is a very short trip. Becoming a truly Lean operation is sometimes confused for successfully completing one Lean task on the plant floor. Any full-scale Lean implementation takes time, effort, money and a complete commitment of all manufacturing personnel from the C-level on down. In the best of economic times, such a commitment is difficult to sell.

Yet the companies who have implemented Lean Toyota, GE, FedEx, Dell are among the world’s most profitable and respected. The issue is not the economies of size or scale, but the commitment to Lean. The success stories and industry experts who talk on the topic agree on one thing: you cannot be just a little Lean.

Commitment to change

Lean has evolved from a concept to a cause to a verb. The idea of “leaning” costs or waste out of a manufacturing operation is part of a fascinating lexicon of acronyms, Japanese words and invented phrases such as “value stream mapping” and “change agent.”

Change is another critical part of Lean. As a manufacturer ponders the potential of introducing Lean into his manufacturing operation, change management becomes its own Lean process.

It is precisely at that point of change where manufacturers must make their commitment to becoming Lean. “You have to define a clear, compelling reason to change,” said Jobby Johnson, chairman of the American Society for Quality’s Lean Enterprise division. “What stakeholders are involved in this change? What is the outcome expected? What does the future look like?”

Those are critical questions, because Lean manufacturing is a forward-looking process. There’s no easy way to go forward, but it’s still the only direction to go. Lean manufacturing is hard work requiring uncommon buy-in from every element of an organization.

Among the first questions to ask, Johnson suggested, is a basic one: “Are you ready to change?”

Commitment to the process

Once that answer is “yes,” a top-down commitment to Lean is essential to success. At the American Society for Quality’s Lean Six Sigma conference in Phoenix in February, a study cited by Minitab Inc. found the leading cause of project failure is a lack of management commitment to the journey.

Sometimes, that commitment comes in small and important ways. At the ASQ event, Anton discussed a small shop in California that focuses on ultra-precision machine parts. The parts are used in medical devices, requiring a high degree of quality under strict regulatory guidelines. Because of the precise nature of the finished product, machine set-up was a tedious, slow process.

None of this was negatively impacting either product delivery or process. They had carved out a solid niche and earned a reputation for quality. Yet the potential was there to do more business if they could find more capacity in the manufacturing operation. “This is a growing company that was working really hard. They just got stuck,” Anton said.

The goal for the company was to reduce set-up times, but Anton said the solution required a more detailed look at every aspect of the manufacturing process. Gathering the metrics needed to make decisions about where to attack the process problems was one stumbling block.

“We analyzed the entire fulfillment process,” Anton said. “We said, ‘Let’s really understand what’s going on.’ If they could get set-up and run times reduced, they could increase capacity.

“What I find in smaller companies is that they don’t do a lot of metrics. Smaller companies don’t have the time to spend eight hours in seminars and training. We had to deliver solutions just-in-time, on the job.

“We found there weren’t really a lot of equipment issues,” said Anton. “It was mostly people issues.”

That’s why at Eaton Corp., the idea of a managed program built around eliminating waste and improving quality isn’t something that becomes part of the bulletin board. Like the Toyota Production System that is the touchstone of all Lean discussions, the Eaton Business System is the document and the doctrine guiding that company’s 60,000 global employees.

At Eaton, EBS has three primary goals:

  • A focus on operational growth and excellence

  • A focus on identifying and sharing best practices

  • A system that is embedded in the organization.

    • “EBS is not an operating system for show,” said Scott Gray, vice president for corporate quality at Eaton. “It’s how we run the business.”

      It is also how the business leaders at Eaton run the business. “The leader is not only expected to use and support EBS. The term (Eaton CEO) Sandy Cutler uses is, ‘Make EBS sing.’ The leader is expected to be an advocate, sponsor and role model for EBS across Eaton.”

      Stuck in the middle

      Management support is a crucial element in Lean implementation. So is the enthusiastic involvement of every member of the organization at any level. Those who emerge as Lean champions are sent out to other Eaton divisions to share their knowledge and skills. “We expect the managers to put them out in the market to help them improve other parts of the business,” Gray said.

      “We want to make sure we involve the right contributors at the right time,” Gray said. “We want to share successes and failures across the organization. We want to make sure Lean is delivering business results.”

      The success drive from the top at Eaton is, however, the exception to a tough rule. “In companies of 100-plus employees, our data shows about 50% are doing something around Lean,” said Doug Maki, outreach manager for the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Business Excellence Consortium. “Only about 2% are doing exceedingly well, to where it is really impacting the business.

      “People power is the key asset,” Maki said. “It’s 90% about the culture and people and 10% about the technology or tools. A lot of companies have not figured that out.”

      When plant managers or division vice-presidents get a taste of Lean’s power at events such as the ASQ Lean event, they invariably come back wanting to implement what they’ve learned. But without the full executive buy-in, Maki said, that enthusiasm winds up on the shelf next to the many books on the topic of Lean.

      “They can get all pumped up, and they try to come back with a message of what’s possible, but they can’t sell it up (the corporate chain),” Maki said. “Some guys tell me, ‘I’m going to test my company. I’m just going to do it, and they’re either going to accept the phenomenal results, or I know that this isn’t the kind of company I want to work for.’ They’re putting their careers on the line.

      “That’s the essence of the problem,” he added. “Until we can figure out how to get this to the C-level, we’re going to be struggling as a society to use these tools. I see all these good people at events like the ASQ event, but you rarely see an executive drop by.”

      Maki said the solution, built around the success Toyota and other manufacturers who have fully embraced Lean, is at hand. Implementation — however difficult or culturally upsetting — is the stumbling block.

      “There’s a struggle, but it’s also an opportunity. The solution is here,” he said. “GM’s solution is offering 74,000 workers a buyout. Yet there are thousands of U.S. companies that have figured this out.”

      Lean in brief

      Lean manufacturing strives to cut all waste from the manufacturing process — defined by former Toyota executive and Lean guru Dr. Shigeo Shingo as “a flow by which an object is transformed from raw materials into finished product.”

      The areas targeted by Lean include:


      Motion (of operator or machine)

      Waiting (of operator or machine)


      Processing itself

      Inventory (raw material)

      Correction (rework and scrap).

      Successful Lean implementation drives cost savings and higher productivity by lowering scrap costs and inventory levels, increasing the operational efficiency of all machines, using all workers effectively and driving safety and quality improvements throughout the process.

      Continuous improvement is an overriding principle of Lean. Not being content with simply cutting some costs, Lean requires constant evaluation of processes and procedures to find the most efficient and effective ways of manufacturing.

      Some key terms:

      5S : Sorting, Set in order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain — the principles for an effective workplace.

      Hoshin Kanri : A process of setting goals and measurement of progress from top management. It is designed to ensure that the entire organization is engaged with the Lean process.

      Just-In-Time : Producing the right part in the right place at the right time to meet customer demands.

      Jikoda : Adding human judgment to the automation process to improve the reliability of the automation process.

      Kaizan : The essence of continuous improvement, it involves making small, incremental changes to drive improvement.

      Poka-yoke : A process to avoid inadvertent efforts in the manufacturing process.

      Six Sigma : Often paired with Lean, Six Sigma’s focus is quality, while Lean concentrates on waste. They are increasingly used together to attack both manufacturing issues in a coordinated fashion.

      Value-Stream Mapping : A visual representation of how product or materials flow from supplier through manufacturing to the customer. It creates a visual map and allows the analysis of how the process really works (which is updated through the use of a future-state value stream).

      Open mic night produces Lean ideas for AME members

      An open mic at a suburban Chicago restaurant usually means one thing — comedy is on the agenda. In January, the subject was Lean.

      There were no punch lines when the Association for Manufacturing Excellence met to share Lean ideas in an open forum. The fun was in finding something everyone could take home and implement.

      One presenter talked about the need to share the Lean philosophy with others throughout the organization through a newsletter discussing continuous improvement efforts. Another used a suggestion box system that gave safety ideas a higher priority for completion than others. The goal was to act on three continuous improvement ideas a day.

      One idea designed to make sure that pick-replenish aisles were used safely was to make the pick side of the aisles just five feet wide so a forklift couldn’t fit through the aisle. That was, picking was done on one side, replenishment on the other.

      Another manufacturer sought to eliminate the possibility of a die being put in backwards. A washer was placed on the front side of the die, and operators could always see which side was which. The $1,000 investment returned $20,000 in scrap savings.

      Such ideas are what got AME’s members together in the middle of winter. “The whole basis of AME is shared learning,” said AME president Ralph Keller. “Lean and continuous improvement is not something you go and take a course in. Our model of shared knowledge is part of that learning process.”

      Keller said that shared learning is an important tool for manufacturers to use to compete effectively in the evolving global manufacturing space. “The thing AME is trying to do is help manufacturers acquire the skills to be successful. It’s really to help companies survive in the global economy,” he said.

      Lean has been an area of particular focus for AME. One of the truths they’ve shared among members is the need for Lean to be universally embraced in an organization. “The Lean transformation cannot be effective if it is delegated down the organization,” Keller said. “If the corner office isn’t on board, it’s not going to succeed. The organization has to be able to change the culture to a Lean-thinking culture.”

      Outside that culture, at AME’s open mic night, the ideas kept flowing. It was things as simple as properly identifying supply barrels to make sure the right lubricant is used. Another manufacturer gave its machine operators specific tasks to perform during downtime. They also were asked to fill out reports on how that downtime was spent.

      There weren’t a lot of laughs, but the crowd still went home happy.

      —Bob Vavra