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Implementing Lean Manufacturing

Tue, 09/29/2009 - 9:00am
Amanda Earing, News Editor

How to Implement Lean Manufacturing, by lean consultant Lonnie Wilson, offers real-world solutions for implementing lean manufacturing in the enterprise, covering the technical, engineering, and production aspects as well as business culture concerns. Wilson also details the necessary cultural changes required for a company to switch to lean and discusses the common reason why certain companies have failed in their implementation. Manufacturing.net talked with Wilson about his new book and his views on lean techniques.

Mnet: How is this book different from others about lean manufacturing?

Wilson: First, It’s about implementing lean as opposed to ‘What is Lean’. There is a lot of good material about what is lean, but this book focuses on how to implement it and make it work. That’s what I find missing from the industry -- taking the principles and then applying them to real-life situations.

So to that end, I added a couple of unique elements to the book. I reduced applying lean to almost a prescription that you can follow with detailed steps that have been proven, time and time again. I have a number of case studies in the book where the prescription is laid out and you just have to implement it.

Secondly, I highlight the tremendous early gains to be made. And by early gains I mean that you implement lean and you get lean results right back. Many lean practitioners have described lean as a journey. That is true, but the implication is that you are putting in a significant investment, and then down the road you’ll get the investment back. I have not found that to be true. I have examples in the book where companies in the first month of implementation have gotten all of their investment back. For example, one improved production by 80 percent in a period of 4 months. Rapid early gains -- within months, even weeks -- is very possible.

Mnet: Why do so many think the gains happen in the long term?

Wilson: Well, it is long term -- you are going to end up changing your business. You’ll make a whole series of changes and ultimately change your culture. It’s a never ending process and is a long term journey. But many people shy away from advertising the short term gains, and quite frankly, it puts a lot of pressure on a consultant, like myself, or a plant manager, to perform. But the bottom line is, there are almost always huge early gains to be made.

Mnet: In today’s economy, is it more of a challenge to implement lean techniques?

Wilson: It’s been more difficult, but not necessarily from a financial standpoint, but from a mindset -- implementing lean techniques is a money-making proposition and it boggles my mind why more companies don’t dive into it head on. But it’s more pronounced now because if they want to hire a lean consultant, for example, then that represents some out-of-pocket cash and they may not have any cash flow. So from that standpoint, it hurts, but I cannot think of anything more powerful for American manufacturers to implement than lean techniques.

Mnet: What are some common mistakes you see manufacturers make when implementing lean practices?

Wilson:  A typical business mistake is starting at the bottom only. The tools of lean manufacturing are not all that complicated to implement, but to sustain any gains, you have to change the whole structure of the business and how management behaves. At the behavioral level, you have to change from the bottom up how the workers operate with less inventory, but at the same time you have to change from the top down so that all the management systems will be implemented to support the people on the shop floor.

Another mistake is managers frequently overlook that lean techniques need to be applied to all processes that helps support production, not just production itself.

For instance, once lean is implemented, the production people perform at a higher level with shorter cycle times and less inventory. But when a machine suddenly fails and requires the maintenance organization to jump into the action, they are not used to operating at that speed. If you want the production people to operate more quickly, you have to make sure maintenance operates the same way. If you want a just in time production system, all of the support systems need to be just in time as well.

Mnet: How can manufacturers ensure long-term results from lean systems?

Wilson: The textbook answer is change the culture, but that is very difficult to do. From the top-down to the bottom-out, you have to change the behavior of workers so that the gains are sustained and are part of the system, not just part of the people that happen to be there at that moment.

It is true that there are all kinds of lean stories where lean made a tremendous step forward and then the CEO retires, or the plant manager left, or the advocate disappeared and the program left with them. Those people implemented the tools of lean, but they didn’t change the culture. The vision of the company and top management’s behavior is really the issue.

Mnet: How can manufacturers change the culture at the bottom level to more readily adapt to lean practices?

Wilson: Culture is created by the history of the company and the actions of the top few people. When the behavior of the people at the top changes, then the culture, or workers, will follow.

For example, in my earlier engineering life, we were criticized for not being entrepreneurial -- not willing to take a risk. But the culture of the company showed if you made a mistake, they would not forget it and you wouldn’t get a raise or it would be reflected in your paycheck. In order for workers to take more risks, management needed to change their behavior to accept the logical consequences of risk-taking. Companies that are quick to criticize won’t get that risk-taking or entrepreneurial spirit out of people.

Mnet: Why is changing a culture, from a management perspective so difficult?

Wilson: Well no one likes change – it’s part of the human condition -- to be comfortable. What causes people to change usually is that they are forced to change. The American automobile industry changed because the Japanese began taking their business. So what happens in most lean initiatives is a crisis develops that causes the change and they change because they must.

Mnet: What other advice would you offer to manufacturers looking to implement a lean system?

Wilson: My advice is start now. I cannot think of a reason a company can’t implement lean techniques starting today. It’s amazing what you can do today. You don’t have to be boggled with the technical information. Just ask yourself, How can I remove waste from my business? How can I get my process to flow better? All of those processes lend themselves to lean and it’s natural -- people know to get rid waste from the system -- they have tons of ideas and usually the problem is they don’t know how to implement those ideas.

Also, lean doesn’t require any capital. With eight different case studies in my book, not one of them would be considered capital-intensive process and six or seven require no capital at all. It’s about driving waste out of the system. Sometimes there’s an opportunity to employ capital, but it’s clearly not required in 90 percent of the applications. It’s just a matter of doing things smarter, better, faster, smoother, and supplying a product to your customer, better, faster and less expensively.

Lonnie Wilson has been teaching and implementing Lean techniques for almost 40 years.  In 1990 he founded Quality Consultants which teaches and applies Lean techniques to Fortune 500 firms as well as small entrepreneurs, principally in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

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