June 12, 2003
Lean manufacturing is more than a buzzword. It is key to improving a company's floor performance, customer responsiveness, and, ultimately, its bottom line. Yet few manufacturers truly understand what it takes to implement the concept.
Lean manufacturing meshes today's information technology with Toyota's much-lauded just-in-time (JIT) approach, which has been adopted by many manufacturers. The Toyota Production System assembly line manufacturing methodology, developed in the 1950s, professed the importance of "getting the right things to the right place at the right time, the first time, while minimizing waste and being open to change" (James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos, The Machine that Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production[New York: HarperCollins, 1991]).
But lean manufacturing goes beyond JIT; it strives to reduce inventory through better communication about production processes and their inherent problems and by tapping into the knowledge of floor personnel to make them part of the solution.
Today many managers talk about implementing lean manufacturing with too little knowledge about the overall concept and goal. In trying to implement the process, many U.S. manufacturers have been disappointed by inadequate results, while others have found the process too disruptive. Still others believe they are adhering to the principles of lean manufacturing but lack the control to improve the process and therefore may actually be costing themselves more money in the long run.
One of the most common misconceptions is that lean manufacturing requires a kanban system. Lean manufacturing is a way of making products, whereas kanban is an information system that uses visual aids to control production quantities. There is more to lean manufacturing than running an inventory program.
The need to be alerted to production problems in real time is what is really important. One of the most widely documented approaches to improving the process at Toyota was stopping the production line when problems occurred.
This stoppage alerted management to a problem the moment it happened. The line workers and management, in a team concept of creative thinking called soikufu, then analyzed the cause of the problem.
However, halting production is not the critical point of the process; identifying the problem is.
What can companies do to move successfully toward lean manufacturing? One of the obvious but often overlooked tools is information from an electronic floor system. A floor information system can help manufacturers move forward with lean concepts of identifying problems, following the flow of parts, and measuring changeover times.
With information systems, factory floor processes and part flow, sometimes referred to as a "current state map," are visibly tracked through production. The process flow is visible and available all day to all employees. Improvement becomes a continuous, ongoing goal for both management and floor workers.
To truly contribute to lean manufacturing, floor information systems should provide the following:
If companies want to have leaner production processes, they need to make sure they evaluate all the alternatives. It is important for managers to think creatively and use the information tools creatively.
Top-level executives can be instrumental in creating a culture for continuous improvement. Empowering all floor workers, managers, and executives to use information provided by information systems, implement creative problem-solving, and share in the success of meeting greater production goals is the key to the success of lean manufacturing today.
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