Tips for Improving Manufacturing Practices Through LEAN Implementation

This article originally appeared in IMPO's June 2015: Net Gain issue. 

Reducing waste, implementing efficiency-promoting practices, and continuously improving manufacturing operations are the main goals of LEAN manufacturing ideology. While these tasks may seem daunting for a manufacturer at the start of an improvement program, there are many concrete steps that can be taken to shift the culture at any company.

If you are able to simplify your manufacturing tasks, increase spatial and workflow organization, take steps to reduce errors, and listen to employees on the manufacturing floor, your company will begin to see reduced waste, improved employee morale and training, improved efficiency, and a greater ability to manufacture products on a predictable timetable.

Simplify Manufacturing Tasks

At the heart of waste reduction and increased efficiency is undergoing a process of simplifying manufacturing tasks. Without a critical eye towards opportunities for simplification, manufacturing tasks throughout your process naturally grow inefficient. Finding an appropriate method for simplifying manufacturing tasks is, therefore, an important first step in any company’s improvement.

Take, for example, Butler Automatic. Butler equipment eliminates downtown due to web changes for the packaging industry. When Butler Automatic began a commitment to LEAN manufacturing practices, it had to find a simplification method that was right for its specific type of manufacturing. Since Butler builds configured machines, it implemented a practice known as cellular manufacturing.

With this method, cells are set up on the manufacturing floor. A cell is set up for each different component of the final product and step in the manufacturing process. The individual cells are tailored to their function in terms of materials, tools and design. In this way, efficiency is increased and waste reduced because all of the appropriate materials and tools are already at workers’ fingertips.

Cellular manufacturing also calls for the same process to be followed each time a certain part is produced or altered. Possible errors are reduced by this increased repetition. Perhaps most important to the LEAN manufacturing process, repetition makes it easier to make iterative changes and track whether these changes have a positive effect on the overall efficiency of the process.

Cellular manufacturing may be right for your business, or you may want to try to find a different way to simplify tasks. Either way, finding a way to simplify your manufacturing process that leads to repeatable quality and easily traceable results is an important first step in the journey.

Increase Organization

Organizing your manufacturing floor and workflow can have a great impact on increasing efficiency. Spatial organization of tools, materials and manufacturing space cuts down on search and transport times, while neat and orderly workspaces help workers to feel more relaxed and able to work quickly.

Visual systems are particularly useful when it comes to manufacturing organization. Job boards directly on the manufacturing floor, for example, help to convey instructions and customer needs directly to those who need them. Similarly, job books can include more detail about each individual product and can be made accessible to all workers who need access to the information..

In the case of Butler Automatic, organization meant that all of the tools and materials required in a single cell are laid out in that cell, right at operators’ fingertips.

Take Steps to Reduce Errors

Errors are, of course, an inevitable part of manufacturing, regardless of the level of automation, organization and simplicity in the system. Recognizing common sources of errors beyond organizational issues and working to improve them can help to limit those errors, and therefore positively impact your process.

For instance, the number of times a part or product is handled often leads to an increase in the likelihood that an error occurs. Taking steps to limit material handling is one way of promoting error reduction in your process. For Butler Automatic, reducing material handling took the shape of introducing a vendor-managed inventory (VMI) process.

Though some may think that VMI simply increases the likelihood that errors will occur on the part of vendors, in reality, VMI is much more than shifting responsibility and handling time. The vendor places inventory right into manufacturing cells or other use areas, cutting out the need to receive, handle, count and shift components from receiving to their point of storage and then point of use.

In addition, simplified operation and training has the added benefit of making it easier to train your workforce across different parts of the manufacturing process. Cross-trained workers help to increase workforce flexibility and therefore efficiency.

Listen to Employees and Constantly Improve

Cross training also gives employees a broader look at the entire manufacturing process, and makes it more likely that they will be able to come up with creative solutions for increasing efficiency and improving your process. Continuous improvement, after all, cannot work when implemented as a top-down process. Workers throughout the process must feel free to think creatively.

Employee empowerment and buy-in to a continuous improvement process occurs in something of a positive feedback loop, as well. When employees see their own or their co-workers’ ideas being implemented, they become more likely to speak up when they have an idea.

One of the most important things to recognize about implementing LEAN manufacturing practices is that not every step in a continuous improvement process will, in fact, improve your process. Some ideas will be tested and not work well, and you shouldn’t be afraid to take a step backwards and start over when something doesn’t work the way you imagine it will. You can always take a step back, but unless all employees feel that their ideas are valued, you won’t always be able to take interesting, creative steps forward.

Butler Automatic celebrates innovation by documenting process changes, and crediting employees behind them. The level of pride that employees take in their work means that they, and their peers, are more likely to continue doing that work to the best of their abilities, and constantly find new ways to do it better.

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