Lean manufacturing in a post-Covid world

Posted on 20 May 2021 by The Manufacturer

The impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic has left many manufacturing businesses questioning some of their lean practices. But delivering value to customers must remain at the core, even in the face of adversity. By leveraging data-driven, real-time insights, manufacturers can continue to do this long into the future and keep their lean initiatives.

Built around the principle of reducing waste as much as possible, without sacrificing productivity, lean manufacturing has become standard practice for many firms across the UK.  

But while slick supply chains, just-in-time (JIT) inventory management and minimal waste all work as they should when the businesses you depend on are able to meet demand, what happens when there is a global pandemic? 

Furlough, reduced operating hours and global supply shortages have all been a reality over the past 14 months. It begs the question: is there still a place for lean manufacturing in a post-Covid world? 

We’re here to explain why there definitely is and highlight how manufacturers can put themselves in a position to thrive once the pandemic is over. 

Let’s stop immediately blaming lean

First and foremost, why does the finger usually get pointed at lean whenever the manufacturing boat gets rocked by a rare occurrence? And let’s face it, the current Covid-19 pandemic is a pretty rare occurrence! 

It was the same back in 2006 with the H5N1 (avian flu outbreak). At the time, people were quick to question lean manufacturing, especially JIT inventory management. But as the father of the lean movement, Jim Womack, wrote at the time: ‘thinking that companies on their own will maintain a buffer stock of finished units adequate for a true emergency is…naïve. They would go bankrupt if they tried’. 

Womack suggested that governments should keep emergency stocks in place to mitigate the fallout of such a global event. Knowing what we know now about the events of the past 14 months, this doesn’t seem like that ludicrous a suggestion.

customer value - image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Customer value must remain at the heart of everything

Let’s not forget that lean manufacturing isn’t solely about reducing costs, minimising waste and improving efficiency. The number one driver for lean should always be enhancing the value delivered to the customer. 

So, while a manufacturer might have the slickest supply chain and the leanest JIT inventory management going, it all counts for nothing the moment a customer order isn’t fulfilled on time or to their expectations. 

Eventually, the Covid-19 pandemic will end. The UK’s amazing vaccine programme continues to reach new milestones and we’ve already witnessed the easing of coronavirus restrictions in England.

Having been unable to properly travel for a significant amount of time, people will be keen to do so as soon as they are able to. Once lockdowns have lifted and we return to some semblance of normality, there’s a strong chance that manufacturers will witness a surge in demand. Those that are in a position to respond will emerge as winners.  

Data-driven, real-time insights as a key differentiator

One way that manufacturers can strike the right balance between lean-as-possible inventory management and continually delighting customers is by taking advantage of real-time data insights.

Data and connectivity now play a vital role in increasing the efficiency of production lines - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Image courtesy of Depositphotos

With the right software systems in place, such as ERP and MRP solutions, manufacturers no longer need to rely on best guesses. Instead, they can leverage up-to-date, real-time information from their shop floor and beyond to see exactly where they and their supply chain are at any given time. 

Such a setup not only enables manufacturers to better plan for the future, but also react faster to changing industry dynamics and sentiment, including sudden surges in demand. 

While the global Covid-19 pandemic will have left many manufacturers questioning their lean practices and wondering if they will be sustainable in the wake of such a poignant event, there are also those who will be fully prepared going forward thanks to their proactive approach to leveraging data. 

Has the Covid-19 pandemic left you questioning your lean manufacturing practices? If it has, or you weren’t actually that lean to begin with, check out this whitepaper from The Access Group on driving performance improvements by applying lean manufacturing tools.

*Header image courtesy of Shutterstock