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Welcome back to TST, Troubleshooters! It’s that day of the week again, and this week we’re beginning our series on lean manufacturing. Today in Part 1 we’re doing a general overview of “lean.” So, let’s dig in.

What is Lean Manufacturing?

In a nutshell, lean manufacturing is a business model that is all about delivering products and services as efficiently as possible. This mostly takes the form of a mindset that continuously looks to find and eliminate waste wherever possible. In a lean manufacturing operation, every employee must be open to changing processes in order to eliminate waste and improve efficiency.

Added to this mindset is the desire to see things from the customer’s perspective—to add the kind of value to products and services that the customer actually wants. If it doesn’t add value, it’s waste.

The Roots of Lean Manufacturing

Some people peg the roots of the lean manufacturing model as far back as Henry Ford’s Model T assembly line. Ford revolutionized mass production. He initiated what he called “flow production” with his moving assembly lines that soon became iconic, but beyond that he made lesser-known but very powerful innovations that resulted in components that could be assembled in minutes instead of hours, and that fit perfectly without requiring time-consuming adjustments. 

Unfortunately, his production was limited to one model, in one color. This was a deliberate decision by Ford, who clearly didn’t believe in kowtowing to the frivolous whims of every bored consumer (hence his famous quote “Any customer can have a car painted any color…so long as it is black.”). Ford believed it was more efficient to do one thing well and not tinker with it.

The Toyota Production System

When consumers started demanding more variety, Ford balked, and other automakers stepped in to fill the void. Over time, they introduced bigger and faster machines into the process, which may have made those individual processes faster, but their throughput times kept growing, as did time lags between process steps, and they generated excessive inventories. 

In the 1930s and 1940s, executives and engineers at Toyota began examining the situation to see what could be done, and came up with the Toyota Production System, the first truly “lean” method of production, which focused on the overall production flow and process sequencing as Ford had done. However, they were also able to add more variety to keep customers happy. The Toyota Production System incorporated notions such as kaizen (continuous, incremental improvements), just-in-time (making only what is needed, only when it is needed, thereby avoiding excess inventory), and jidoka (automation with a human touch—or intuitive automation).

By about 1975 Toyota had virtually perfected its system, and it had begun to spread to other Japanese companies. By the 1908s it was beginning to catch on in the US under names such as “world class manufacturing,” “stockless production,” and “continuous flow manufacturing,” among others.

The Machine That Changed the World

In the 1990s, two books made lean manufacturing a household word: The Machine That Changed the World (by James Womack, Daniel Roos, and Daniel Jones; 1990) and Lean Thinking (by Womack and Jones; 1996). Womack, an MIT professor, and his colleagues undertook a five-year study on the future of the automobile, coining the term “lean manufacturing” and clearly outlining its principles.

Lean Manufacturing Today

Today, lean manufacturing principles underlie most manufacturing operations to some extent. However, they now incorporate several contemporary trends that dovetail nicely with lean ideals.

  1. Industry 4.0. The advent of state-of-the art production machinery with sophisticated sensor technology and internet connectivity allowing communication between stages all along the production line jives perfectly with the notion of eliminating waste. The IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) leverages new technologies to offer spectacular opportunities for finding efficiencies and reducing costs.
  2. 3D Printing. 3D printing makes creating prototypes fast, easy, and cheap. It allows for easy customization of products tailored directly to customer needs, it reduces lead times, and it encourages innovation because experimentation is now far more cost-effective than formerly. In short, it goes hand in hand with lean.
  3. The Green Movement. With the popularity of green, more people have an incentive to be lean. Eliminating waste is good for the manufacturer, but it’s also now desired by the consumer and has become a value proposition in itself.

And that’s it for this week, Troubleshooters! Tune in again next Thursday when we look at the 8 types of waste that lean manufacturing seeks out and destroys.

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