Next-level lean

By Ian Marshall. 

Think, for a moment, of manufacturers in your network that have implemented and sustained long-term lean programs. Five years, 10 years, 20 years? How about in your own operations? Is lean merely set of tools, or is it a way of doing business, embraced from the shop floor all the way up to the corner office?

If you’re wary to disclose the answer, don’t fret — you’re not alone. The truth is most lean programs fail to deliver the hoped-for results. Or, at least, they falter over time. Even Shingo Prize winners — companies that have been recognized for excellence in lean — publicly struggle to realize endured success. The more disparaging part is that few stop to ask why.

Most business owners and senior managers think about lean as a vehicle to improve business performance. But to motivate, engage, and bring the workforce along, there has to be a compelling reason that goes beyond reducing costs or increasing sales. There needs to be a bigger purpose, a bigger reason to change.

I remember listening to the CEO from Denver Health a few years ago. She talked about the tens of millions of dollars saved by the organization through lean. Yet, at the end of the day, she said, it’s all about saving lives.

Closer to home, Decor Cabinets is another manufacturer that embraces customers in their company mission: To create cabinets people love and to build life into people’s lives.

And if all else fails, consider Toyota. When you walk into a Toyota plant, you see the physical infrastructure, but you don’t see the human side in the background. Internally, TPS is actually thought of as the thinking people system — a call to action to an army of problem solvers channeling their energy into continuous improvement.

If you blinked, you might have missed it. One word in the last sentence is the missing link in most lean journeys: A system. A clear and defined lean management system.

David Mann, author of Creating a Lean Culture, is (in my humble opinion) one of the premier thought leaders in this space. He outlines three dimensions of lean management systems fundamental to sustaining results.

The first centres on establishing visual controls and measurements around critical processes. The most common mistake made by manufacturers is limiting what they consider critical to attach KPIs. You need to look at not only end results, but also at the processes that deliver those results. Kitchen Craft, for instance, may have a goal of producing 250 kitchens per day. Those 250 kitchens don’t get built, however, unless they meet quality and productivity targets at each step of the manufacturing process — cutting, painting, assembly, and packaging. These days, machine monitoring makes it easy to collect data, but it only takes a marker and a whiteboard to connect the cell team to the process.

The second element is formalizing an accountability mechanism. This includes daily huddles, assignment of tasks, and responding to the needs and demands of the team. Kaizens are often a spin-off of this process. It is important all areas have one key measurement that connects them to the process. If things are going sideways, it is immediately evident and tasks are assigned.

The final piece of the puzzle is what Mann refers to as leader standard work. This is the thing most companies struggle with — how to take the front-line leader out of the firefighting, reactive mode, and shift them to a position where they can work on the system, not in the system. Toyota group leaders — the equivalent of our supervisors — spend 80 per cent of their time on the shop floor, all consumed connecting with and supporting team leads. Fifty per cent may be a more realistic target for most Prairie manufacturers.

Now, don’t be intimidated if this all seems overwhelming. At Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) here in Manitoba, our membership represents between 50-60 per cent of total manufacturing shipments, and roughly half of our entire membership is involved in our lean development initiatives. Of that group, I can count on one hand the number that have cemented a lean management system directly connecting the people to the overall direction and focus of the company.

It’s not something you need to rush into, either. Before you even start trying to establish a lean management system, you better ensure you have a certain level of stability in your business. New Flyer Industries, one of the largest manufacturers on the Prairies, spent three years after starting their lean journey focused solely on getting their house in order, creating basic symmetry and stability using 5S as the tool.

I typically receive calls from companies that feel they are much further along than they are; and, when I sit down to look at the way they’re doing business, it’s borderline painful.

You need to be honest with yourself. The person cutting the metal (or wood, or whatever other material you’re working with), bending the metal, doing the painting — the guy or gal adding the value: Do these people have the environment they need, with good lighting, a clean workspace, clear instructions, adequate supplies, proper training, and the required time in their day? Even if you’re not sure, start with that. And if you’ve nailed that down, move on to standardized work. Standardized processes (how to drill a hole, read a drawing, assemble a part, issue an estimate) are the domain of highly customized manufacturers and fabricators as well — not just those working in batch.

Manufacturing success is about four, elementary pillars: Safety, quality, schedule, and cost — in that order. Lean is the ‘way’ to realize that success. Our industry is full of bright, capable people, who can always come up with a fix. It’s time to ask yourself: How will that fix be maintained?

Ian Marshall currently serves as lean champion for CME Manitoba. He has more than 30 years continuous improvement experience with manufacturers throughout Canada and Europe, including senior positions with Motor Coach Industries and Lucas Industries.