How to begin lean manufacturing
This article was supposed to be about applying Extreme 5S thinking to developing a marketing plan, but there is something more pressing that I want to share as the year comes to a close and you begin planning for 2013. Of course a good marketing plan is important for achieving success in 2013, but if your manufacturing operation isn’t prepared to deliver a quality product, on-time, every time then seeking additional business will be counter-productive.
I recently had the opportunity to visit with two visionary leadership teams. Both teams recognize the need for change in order to capture competitive advantage and grow their businesses. They also know that lean thinking is the solution, but, even though key managers have been following my articles and have read all of the best selling lean books, they were not certain when, where, and how to begin the transformation process.


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Getting started with lean

It may seem odd to insert an article on how to begin the Lean journey in the middle of a series that has been focused on developing a more mature lean process, but I believe that there are a large number of readers, particularly managers of smaller shops, who are knowledgeable of the various lean tools and techniques, but are uncertain how to get started. Basically there are two things a manager needs to do once he or she has decided to transform their business.
The first is to get as familiar as possible with lean thinking through articles, books, and networking with other managers who are already engaged in the transformation process. Your lean library should include, “Lean Thinking – Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation,” by James Womack and Dan Jones; “Toyota Kata – Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results,” by Mike Rother; “Gemba Kaizen – A Commonsense, Low-Cost Approach to Management,” by Masaaki Imai; and my book, “Story of a Lean Journey.” All of that reading may not qualify you as an expert, but you will have a greater understanding and appreciation of the dynamics of a Lean transformation and the commitment required to sustain the journey.

Hire an expert

The second thing is to retain the services of an expert lean facilitator to assess your current situation and help develop a plan to bridge the gap between where the company currently is and where you want to go. Since Lean is a team-based business philosophy, engaging your entire staff in the transformation process is a key to success. The Lean expert can facilitate the necessary training and coaching to get everyone on the same track and moving to the same objective. If you aren’t ready to actively engage your entire staff in the continuous improvement process you will not achieve a successful lean transformation.
Brad, the CEO of Signature Wood Systems, the company that I have cited in previous articles, was in the same position as the leaders of the two companies that I recently visited. Brad had read all of the popular books and followed my articles, but he lacked the necessary skills to effectively communicate lean thinking to his staff in a way that they could understand and embrace. That is not an uncommon situation so selecting the right resource to facilitate the transformation process is an important decision. Brad is now nearing his initial objectives, and a firm foundation has been established for him to move toward his ultimate objective of growing the business by multiples of ten-fold.

Go to gemba

“Gemba Kaizen” will help you understand how to “go to gemba” - the place where the work is done - and observe and absorb current conditions so you can identify opportunities for improvement. When you are seeing gemba through lean eyes, two areas of improvement should become obvious. One is all of the clutter and excess stuff that the staff has to work around or through in order to complete their tasks, and the other is the “batch production” mental model that likely pervades your operation. Both of these characteristics, as seen in the accompanying photos, are common in non-lean businesses and are the major causes of the chaos and confusion that lead to poor on-time delivery and excessive cost.
In one photo accompanying this article there is excess clutter that has accumulated from previous jobs around an active work area. The workers have to navigate through and around the clutter to complete current jobs. The clutter adds to the chaos and confusion and creates a number of wastes such as the waste of excess transportation, bringing new loads to the work area and taking completed work out of the area, the waste of processing because the workers have to change the pattern of their tasks because of the additional interference, and the waste of movement on the part of the worker.
The clutter is also evidence of increased inventory cost, which decreases cash flow that could have been used for other parts and materials. In this case the inventory may not be able to be recycled for use on other jobs, in which case the financial resources that were consumed will not be recovered. The solution is quite simple – engage the staff in Workplace Organization and supporting that initiative with standard procedures for limiting the amount of work that can enter an area.

Reducing WIP

The other photo shows pallets of excess Work-in-Process (WIP) waiting to move to the next operation. The clutter in the workplace along with the excess WIP necessitates increasing the space between process steps to accommodate the unnecessary stuff. There are two additional non-value adding costs associated with the current batch process that can be seen in the pictures as well. One is the requirement for shrink-wrapping the pallets to prevent the load from spilling as it is moved to the next operation, and the other is the placement of the pallets in proximity to each other.
To get the pallet closest to the rack requires one or both of the other pallets to be moved out of the way. Moving the pallets requires time and other resources that could be expended to add customer-perceived value rather than exacerbating the waste that is already present in the operation. Part of the solution is applying Extreme 5S thinking in managing work-in-process, which was detailed in a recent article.
Getting started on the lean journey will not be a daunting undertaking if you approach the decision as an informed manager with an expert identified to help launch the transformation process and periodically guide, coach, and mentor your leaders and staff. If you would like to talk to Brad about how he got started you can contact him at: Brad Cairns, Signature Wood Systems, St. Thomas, ON, CN, 519.637.7023 or by email at [email protected]. I’m sure he will be happy to hear from you.
Prepare the way for a banner year in 2013 by making the decision to transform your business to the lean business model.

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About the author
Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis has worked in the furniture industry for 40 years with a special emphasis on facilitating the transformation process for businesses embracing the Lean Business Model.  Jim’s company, The Center for Lean Learning, is headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI, with an office in St. Thomas, ON, Canada.  He is a consultant, author, and writer.  Jim’s books include, “The Journey to Excellence – Successfully Applying Lean Thinking in Your Business,” “A Testament to Lean Thinking – Cases for Change,” and a series of ebooklets under the main title “Applying Lean Thinking.”  The books are in ebook format and are available through all major ebook retailers and through