Lean : The same yesterday, today, and tomorrow
December 10, 2015 | 9:00 am CST
This article may seem a bit convoluted, but I promise to bring it to a singular conclusion in the end. As I work on this, I am enjoying a peaceful cruise vacation with my son. You may recall that I featured Holland America Cruise Line in one of my articles on Workplace Organization and Standard Work processes some time ago. I will share further standardizations from shipboard life with you in this article, but first I want to get to the theme for the choice of my title.
A colleague sent me a copy of a solicitation for consulting assistance that he found while surfing the internet. Since the company seeking assistance is based in Michigan, he naturally felt it would be a good fit for The Center for Lean Learning. One of my associates is checking into it further. It wasn't the potential for another project that intrigued me, it was the wording of the solicitation. It seems the owner of a small company that claims to make 250 to 300 one-off-type items annually is seeking assistance in applying lean thinking to that type of a manufacturing environment. He stated that he, and some of his employees, have extensive experience in lean from other business segments that deal in high-volume, low-mix markets, but they don't know how to apply lean to a low-volume, high-mix operation.


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Lean is lean wherever

Is there a difference in how lean thinking should be applied to different industries or market segments within an industry? If you have been following my articles for any period of time you should find that question easy to respond to. Lean thinking is lean thinking. The tools and techniques of lean apply equally well in every industry, service sector, and business of any type.
That is not just lean propaganda talking. I have personally implemented lean in the automotive industry, various furniture segments, foundry operations, health care, food processing, administrative functions, metal fabrication, aluminum die casting, locomotive service operations and more, both domestic and international.  Every business and industry is comprised of processes that take a variety of inputs and transform them into outputs to satisfy a customer's expectation. Lean focuses on the processes that create your customer's output, not on how the processes function to transform the inputs into customer desired output.

Common lean principles

As my son and I enjoy time together on the cruise, the topic of lean has come up a few times. He is searching for an opportunity to use his experience and expertise from the printing business in a more meaningful way. He said that there are more and more employers seeking a person with lean experience. He knows about the work I do, but we have never discussed it in great detail - until now. He asked how lean would apply to the printing business. We talked about waste, the proximity of interdependent processes to each other for flow creation, set-up reduction to facilitate flexibility in meeting changing customer demand, standardizing processes, workplace organization, balancing processes to customer demand or Takt Time, and several other lean tools and techniques. I emphasized that lean is nothing more than a common-sense approach to continually improving processes and maximizing a company's existing resources.
You don't need to be a rocket scientist to effectively apply lean thinking. Don't make it so complex or complicated that you are intimidated into thinking it won't fit your particular circumstances or that it has to be tailored in a certain way because your business is so special. I hope no one will be offended when I contend that there isn't anything special about your business. Many other people are doing the same thing you are. Although the inputs might vary, and the level of technology might be different, every company is in the business of providing an output that meets their customer's needs.

Lean in custom work

So let's get back to the business owner who is seeking a consultation on applying lean thinking to his specialty products. As I have alluded to a couple of times already in this article, and stated several times over the years, there are very few manufacturing companies that are truly "custom." A "custom" operation is one that never repeats its output or the processes that create the output. A truly "custom" shop would be reinventing itself with different technology, equipment, tools, inputs, outputs, and maybe even different people with every customer order. Nothing would ever be the same. That kind of company might exist, but it is the exception, not the rule.
This cruise ship prepares 3,000 meals, three times each day for guests and crew. Each day's menu is different, and the menus are not repeated during the cruise. There are specialty restaurants on board, as well, so the variety of food that a guest can order is almost limitless. Even with all of the variations, there isn't anything custom about the food that is served. The only things that change are the inputs that comprise the output desired by the guest. The cooks and chefs use the same stoves, ovens, pots, pans, and utensils to prepare all of the meals.

Applying lean tools

This example holds true for every business that I have encountered in my 40-year working career. Accommodating all of the variations in customer demand in a timely manner simply requires the application of lean tools and techniques. On board the ship there is plenty of evidence of lean thinking.  During a tour of the galley I discovered Standard Work, Workplace Organization, Set-up Reduction, and Team-based activities at a mature level.
Whether your business engages in preparing meals for 3000 guests three times each day, building a customized kitchen for a client who insists his or her kitchen be the envy of every eye, building a yacht for a discerning millionaire, making piston rings, or the myriad of other outputs that customers can envision for fulfilling their desires, the application of Lean Thinking is exactly the same. The objective is always the elimination of waste and non-value adding activity that prevents maximum utilization of existing resources. Focus on the processes and systems of your business, not the varied output that your customer demands, and you will achieve success in your lean transformation.

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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 smashwords.com.