Staying lean in a lean economy

June 18, 2002
By: Gary Conner

Slow times call for some desperate measures, but losing sight of a lean approach to manufacturing should not be one of them. Take an opportunity that slow times present to evaluate your business and take appropriate steps towards a lean operation.

Over the past few months I've had the chance to speak at six different manufacturing conferences and trade association symposiums.

Without a doubt, the most recurring topic of conversation has been the current economic slowdown. Specifically, many people have expressed concerns about how they can encourage employees to continue seeking improvements in productivity at the same time as they see peers and co-workers being sent home because of soft sales.

Saying that applying the lean approach will not result in layoffs does not ease the pain of seeing friends and co-workers displaced. It is hard to separate the long-term economic condition from day-to-day efforts and results. It's even harder for folks on the shop floor who don't see the numbers or participate in the meetings at which sales projections are reduced week after week.

So, how can we fuel progress toward operating as a lean enterprise in an environment in which sales may have eroded, resulting in cutbacks in spending or staff?

Don't Let Downtime Deter You

Certainly, the current conditions present a number of challenges.

Looking on the positive side, however, we can see that the situation also presents a distinct set of opportunities. Over the past few years most companies were so busy that they had little time to make improvements. After being in a rainstorm for so long, it may seem easier just to take time off when there is a break in the downpour of business.

My grandfather had a story about a roof that needed patching. Because the roof didn't leak in the summer, he put off patching it until winter. Then, in the winter, it rained too hard to go up on the roof, so the roof never got patched.

Looking in the mirror, we should ask ourselves if we are taking a break or preparing for the next storm.

In the heat of battle, we rarely have time to spend on training and other such activities. However, if we look at the current economic situation as a chance to prepare for the next storm, we can begin to distance ourselves from the competition. I am not talking about buying new buildings or new equipment, but rather investing in employees and in improving the manufacturing process.

Author Steven Covey stated it well in his analogy about sharpening the saw. The story went something like this: During a walk in the woods, a traveler came upon a lumberjack trying to cut down a large tree with a crosscut saw. Watching him struggle, the traveler suggested that he stop to sharpen his saw. The lumberjack surprised the traveler when he replied that he would, but he was too busy cutting the tree down.

We can do ourselves and the stakeholders of our businesses a great favor by taking time to sharpen our own saws.

Learn From Others

We also can learn a lot by looking at other industries.

Racecar teams, for example, do not just sit back and wait between races. They spend the time between events trying to squeeze out every possible ounce of horsepower, torque, and fuel efficiency that they possibly can.

Although our racecars are in the form of machining centers, press brakes, lasers, and EDMs, the principle is the same. Pit crews work all year long on improving their changeover time in the pits—are your operators spending this time perfecting their pit stops? After all, a slowdown in sales certainly can be viewed as a negative, but it can also be seen as a seldom-realized opportunity to focus on getting better at the manufacturing fundamentals.

In addition, taking time to visit other companies or customers who also are trying to apply the lean approach can be a beneficial activity during off-peak periods. We undoubtedly learn best by doing things ourselves, but the next best way to learn is by watching someone else do it. Reciprocal visits have a way of encouraging everybody involved. These are all the more powerful if you visit your own customers, because they have a chance to see your commitment to following their lead.

Every company leadership team, manager, or team leader is obligated to drive improvement daily. For the past 10 to 15 years this challenge has been met in an environment in which businesses barely had time to catch their breath between waves.

Take advantage of this unique moment to do what you never seem to have time for during a strong market. Here are just a few suggestions for activities that can pay huge dividends when the economic faucet gets turned on again:

  1. Setup reduction
  2. Machine reliability and capability gains
  3. Experimentation with a virtual cell
  4. Cross training
  5. Workplace organization (5-S activities)
  6. Teamwork training
  7. Standard work definition
  8. Material handling improvements

The benefits could be:

  1. Shorter lead-times
  2. Reduced inventory
  3. Increased productivity
  4. Higher employee morale
  5. Greater quality
  6. Reduction in space requirements
  7. Decreased material handling

We have an obligation to our customers, suppliers, shareholders, employees, and communities to do our utmost to learn, teach, and improve our business every day using whatever tools are at our disposal and to take advantage of every available moment to do so.

We have a unique opportunity right now. However, it is only of value if we use it. It's up to us. If we are to survive, the choice is clear. Get lean while we have the chance, because the next downpour of sales is sure to come. When it does, there will be little time to fix the roof then.

Gary Conner

Contributing Writer
Lean Enterprise Training
145 Mystic Mountain Drive
Sparks , NV 89441
Phone: 503-580-1156
Award-winning author Gary Conner is president of Lean Enterprise Training.

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