The term "lean" first appeared in 'The Machine That Changed The World'
~ James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos ~
This book, first published in 1990, was the result of a research project into the world of automotive manufacturing which investigated the ways in which Japanese companies had completely rewritten the rules of business performance. Many of the elements had previously been covered in 'World Class Manufacturing' by James Schonberger in 1986 and most had been around for almost twenty years before that under the banner of Just in Time or JIT. To understand Lean requires that we look at the history of JIT as we know it.
As we understood more of JIT we learned that stock levels and lead times were not the only targets of the Toyota Production System and its followers in Japanese industry. We began to realise that our aim must be to eliminate waste in all its forms. What is waste? we asked ourselves, and turned to people like Mr Ohno and Mr Shingo and were told that waste is anything which does not add value.
We knew already of some wastes - for example, inspection adds no value. Why not just get the process right and then we needn't carry out this activity? Similarly, why expedite our suppliers when, if we had chosen good partners and had a true partnership with them, this would not be needed? Why move items to a dedicated packing area if we could perform the packing in tandem with the assembly operation for the product and eliminate this movement? Why move parts from one end of a factory to another, and back again, if a little more thought in laying out the plant differently might take out this activity?
There are now many successful implementations in the UK. In some companies these have been brought about through a formal Lean project or JIT. Sometimes the project has been managed under the Total Quality banner and in other cases the company has chosen some name which indicated that this was an all-embracing exercise to adopt good practice throughout all processes.
The choice of name is a matter for personal preference and has to be made in the light of what is likely to succeed within the particular business. Some organisations are open to standard terms being promoted as this is what we are going to do now and others are not. However, there are businesses where a term such as Lean (or JIT, or TQ, or World Class) might be viewed by a cynical workforce as being academic or theoretical nonsense that won't work here.
I have briefly described some of the lean elements here but have only scratched the surface. In any case what is it? The topics described above don't include any reference to:
Even this isn't the full list. In addition, many authors now include other subjects within the Lean portfolio. For example, Eliyahu Goldratt's Theory of Constraints and Drum, Buffer, Rope can play a major part it's introduction to planning and control. Business Process Reengineering (BPR) has at its heart the one stop shop approach to the elimination of handovers and the adoption of management by exception - both clearly aimed at cutting out manufacturing waste.
So the range of techniques comprising the full toolset is broad enough to fill the many large training textbooks available on the subject. In addition to its breadth it has considerable depth - some of the individual elements can fill a series of books on their own.
The task, as ever, is to set out a project as being something that will give, defined and quantifiable business benefits. We should not be looking to say right, we've done MRP and Total Quality, now we will do Lean and then we will do Self-Directed Work Teams. We need a plan that is aimed at addressing known manufacturing issues in our business, or has as its initial phase some form of review that identifies the issues to be addressed. Perhaps this should incorporate some form of benchmarking. This must certainly be aimed at ensuring that we match our competition, but should also go further. We should be looking to be innovative - perhaps by applying ideas from other industries and markets.
Another choice is whether or not to build improvement plans around the use of Japanese manufacturing terminology. We may seek continuous improvement or think of this approach as kaizen; if seeking breakthrough use the term kaikaku; trying to solve problems or think of each as a muda; looking for smooth production or aim to establish heijunka. Again, we need to assess the impact within our organisation. Will the use of well-established lean terminology help or will such terms simply fuel the cynics?
And one final point: as ever our plan needs to be precisely that, a plan, defined as something we intend to do. It must not be a wish list of all the things we'd like to do in an ideal world. There is a limit to the number of tasks and changes a business can address at once and this must be recognised. It is far better to set ourselves modest targets and achieve them all than aim for Utopia and fail.
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