The lean blockbuster

Posted on 18 Aug 2008 by The Manufacturer

David Crowfoot and Toby Arnold identify the five most common problems encountered with lean manufacturing, and share their experiences of how to identify and overcome them

L ean manufacturing has been actively embraced by companies throughout the UK, and successful lean progress results in a reduction in lead time and waste. As a consequence of this, output levels, productivity and profit increase. But the lean movement can often falter or even come to a halt, and certain stumbling blocks to the implementation of lean recur time and time again.

Perhaps the key reason why lean can flounder is the fact that within many organisations there can, at all levels, be a resistance to change. If this resistance is not tackled, and plans are not put in place for engaging as much of the organisation as possible in the lean process, then results will at best be patchy and in the longer term, improvements may be lost.

This resistance to change can manifest itself at any level within the business but is often seen in first line management who feel they have ‘worked hard’ to get to their position and so can be reluctant to empower their people, and indignant to any radical changes, interpreting them as an attack on their ability. The second stumbling block to lean is probably the failure to empower your people. Lean results come about by everyone adopting a process of continuous improvement, aiming to do better today than yesterday, looking at today’s problems and adopting a structured approach to solve them from root cause. When embarking on a lean programme, many companies realise the need to involve their people and try to do so by introducing an improvement suggestion scheme. Unfortunately what often happens is that these ideas can end up in a big pile for maintenance/ engineering to deal with, and very little gets done, simply because they do not have the time or resources to do so.

The key to empowering your people is to not only have them generate the improvement ideas but to also be part of the team that implements them, to work through the structured plan-docheck- act approach, with guidance and support, so that, in time, they adopt improvements as part of their day-to-day work. Meanwhile, the management team still retains the responsibility and provides the drive to make change happen. It is critical for managers to empower their staff in lean, but not to delegate responsibility for its success. We have seen instances where senior and middle managers blame the shopfloor for failure because they have delegated responsibility for its success to them.

What can hamper lean progression is getting ‘buy-in’ from workers; perhaps they have seen programmes being introduced in the past which have fallen by the wayside or have, quite simply, failed. Keeping workers motivated and eradicating mass apathy is absolutely essential when embarking on the lean journey. In extreme circumstances, you may have to lose those who are unwilling to accept change. This is always a difficult choice to make and can result in fraught internal relations at first, but the benefits for the company as a whole, and those workers who are willing to undertake new challenges, must be made the primary concern.

At POP (point of purchase) printer Bezier’s sites in Bristol and Poole, there was a very good process for obtaining, from departmental teams, a list of their ‘restrictions’: that is, the things that prevented them from doing their jobs effectively and efficiently. Unfortunately, this list would often stall at the departmental manager, who would make little progress with the actions, perhaps seeing the list as a sign of departmental weakness. Training, support, and mentoring from business improvement managers was given to this critical team, ensuring that they understood what was expected of them in their role. Appropriate departmental KPIs were developed and the company adopted a far more visible problem identification and solving process using continuous improvement and ease benefit boards. Improvement has now become part of the day-today job of all, and managers can feel proud of, and are recognised for, the improvements that they are assisting their teams to achieve.

The third main stumbling block is believing that you can understand it all, simply by reading a few books. While the techniques can certainly be explained in books, they often need to be adapted to individual organisations. The Toyota way will not work in all businesses. Sometimes having someone with experience can help guide you along the path, or tailor a programme to your business needs, and provide an understanding of the key principles. People, rather than books, will help to explain potentially confusing Japanese terminology, which can sometimes hinder progress. Terms such as ‘gemba’ (place of action), ‘muda’ (waste) and ‘kaizen’ (continuous improvement), hail from the birthplace of lean – Japan – but they should not be obstacles to learning. And implementing lean from a book is futile if you don’t understand the semantics surrounding it. It is vital to understand the key principles rather than the tools and techniques, as the principles will guide your application of lean.

Pegler, the Doncaster-based tap and valve manufacturer, had in the past realised that lean was a process it needed to adopt if it was to stay at the forefront of the industry. Having read a number of books and articles about lean, the company tried to implement it through simply investing in employee training in tools and techniques – providing training in 5S workplace organisation, standard operating procedures, visual management and value stream mapping. Although this resulted in a number of ‘islands of improvement’, in truth, it never really realised the bottom line benefits first envisaged.

After working with MAS Yorkshire & Humber, Pegler reviewed the reasons why this approach didn’t work, and the team are now starting to understand what lean is all about. The key to ongoing success, it believes, is to embed lean as a requirement within everyone’s role, and to put in place the correct level of line management responsibility and accountability so the right tools and techniques can be implemented to support it.

The fourth barrier to lean is the perception that it is something for manufacturing only. In the western world, lean has predominantly focused on manufacturing, adopting tools and techniques to improve the manufacturing process, with very little emphasis on non-production areas (all areas of the business are productive in a way – or at least should be), even to the point where the term lean manufacturing is widely used. However, when we consider that at least 60 per cent of the total lead time and costs associated with production come from outside the production area, true benefit comes through becoming a lean organisation – where admin, the supply chain and non-production areas also become involved. It is vital, therefore, that lean is seen as an organisation-wide improvement tool, for the true benefits to be realised.

Spinflo, a manufacturer of cookers, hobs and gas fires for the leisure industry, has started to implement lean within its manufacturing areas by applying 5S workplace organisation, creating single-piece flow through line balancing, introducing hourly performance metrics that identify any issues that have prevented the targets being achieved, along with appropriate actions to resolve. Improvements in productivity of 10 to 20 per cent have been achieved on some product ranges. Further improvements however can now really only be achieved by involving the whole of the internal supply chain in the process. This is where the business is starting to focus, ensuring that jobs are planned in the right order, that parts and components are available when and where needed, that internal kanbans work effectively, that 5S workplace organisation benefits are a focus in all departments and that all within the business are working together towards the common goal of 100 per cent customer satisfaction.

The fifth impediment to lean is believing that implementing a few lean tools and techniques will make a big difference. Lean is a whole philosophy. While the tools by themselves can yield some benefit, the true gains come from changing the way the whole organisation runs, by adopting lean as a system and changing the whole culture of the business, from top down.

The solution is both simple and complex; manufacturers who do not seek lean perfection, which is zero waste, and who have no lean programme in place, may well struggle to stay competitive, especially if their direct competitors have undertaken the lifestyle metamorphosis – simple. Those who do embrace lean have to juggle initial financial outputs (such as re-training staff and overtime salaries) with culture change and keeping the momentum going – complex.

Implementing lean or any change initiative is difficult. If it wasn’t, everyone would be doing it, and they’re not. The answer is that the philosophy, tools and techniques are relatively simple; the hard bit is the culture, people, training, employee acceptance and ultimately, perseverance and endurance – improvement does not happen overnight.

Top tips for lean success
• Any resistance to change must be tackled and plans put in place to engage staff
• Involve the whole workforce in both idea generation and the all important implementation process
• Don’t allow this involvement to descend into delegation of responsibility
• Keep staff motivated – mass apathy will block any possible lean success
• Books can help to explain lean techniques, but those techniques will need to be adapted to fit your specific company
• An understanding of the key principles of lean is vital to any implementation of its techniques
• Lean is an organisation-wide tool and must be applied to all areas of a business to achieve true benefit
• Finally, to reap the full rewards of a lean system, the whole culture of the business must be changed – from the top down

David Crowfoot is head of operations for MAS South East. Toby Arnold is a MAS practitioner for the Yorkshire & Humber region.