So much is written about Lean Manufacturing that we could be forgiven for believing that it is only seriously kept alive in academia and provides endless opportunities for many ‘experts’ to share their views on the subject. Yet, it seems, that many of these authors spent much of their lives in academia and rarely, if ever, set foot in a manufacturing environment. Some, it seems, have no qualifications on the subject and little experience, but choose to write about Lean because it is so topical and, of course, so obvious that no manufacturing enterprise which wishes to remain profitable in the long term would willingly support wasteful practices.
Whilst we do not subscribe to the belief that a qualification such as Lean Six Sigma Black Belt or Master Black Belt held by the person or people running the continuous improvement programme is a guarantee of a successful outcome, we do believe that, having gone down this route ourselves, it is a massive help to understanding and credibility. The fact that we have not only achieved the certification but we have used it in so many applications to support our clients to improve their performance and minimise the ‘fat’, gives us much greater confidence to talk about ‘Lean’ from a position of strength and considerable experience.
Interestingly enough, in most applications, we are not called upon for our knowledge and experience of Lean, but are often asked by prospective clients to look at some limited aspect of control, such as the reduction of overfill, legal compliance, the introduction of paperless quality management or efficiency improvements. It is only when we start the process of looking at that which we have been asked to focus upon that we often see many more opportunities for performance improvement. In some cases, these opportunities haven’t even been considered as such by the potential client as they had been doing things the same way for so long that it seemed normal and, in their view, optimised.
This has led us in some cases to agree an end to end production performance improvement evaluation with the approval of the prospective client, which would often mean a complete factory walkthrough and the creation of a detailed value stream map. Doing so in a structured way helps us and the client to see more clearly where value is being added and where cost without value is added. This leads us to a more in-depth analysis to determine whether or not the value added is optimised or, if without additional costs, more value could be added and it also allows us to have more of a deep dive into the non-value added, appreciating that some of the NVA would need to remain in order to sustain high-quality standards, high safety standards etc., but some non-value added could often be eliminated altogether.
Even the cost of essential non-value added can often be further reduced without adverse consequences, like greater risk or lower quality consistency.
Quite often these non-value added and added value activities have been so embedded in the process for so long, that they are simply repeated on a day to day basis without question. Sometimes, through this structured approach, even we get lucky and find some quick and valuable wins, but more often, our analyses take persistent effort, patience and time in order to achieve and sustain a highly efficient ‘conversion process’ at reduced cost, without increasing risk or non-compliance.
Sometimes specific problems crop up time and again and need a small team to have a dedicated short-term evaluation (a Kaizen burst), to get to and eliminate the root cause of a problem.
Hopefully, when we are working with our clients and totally involving them in this performance improvement process, we can transfer complete ownership of the on-going continuous improvement process to them. After all, it is their business. In effect, we do not want companies to become so dependent upon us that they only drive performance improvement when we are present.
In order to ensure therefore that this does not happen, we will work with them to ensure that they have sufficient understanding of how to run the system effectively by using the classic DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control) to do precisely that. Where so many companies have difficulty is that they bring in consultants who are often very well-known with good reputations, who help them use such tools as DMAIC, but once those consultants leave site, as inevitably they must, the performance improvement often stagnates or even begins to decline (the upwards continuous improvement curve first plateaus out, then begins to drop into the well-known ‘valley of death’).
Fortunately, the use of our system throughout the continuous improvement process makes such stagnation and deterioration totally impossible, without the management team becoming instantly aware of this from the PC on their desk. They can find out instantly without leaving their offices, the current performance status of all their local and remote production lines, timely enough to take action before it’s too late. It is obviously no good waiting until the retailers’ transportation arrives, within the narrowly agreed time window to collect the consignment, before finding out that it is hopelessly behind schedule.
Real-time information, instantly displayed across integrated networks and also constantly displayed upon large TV screens in the production area, means that the whole operational team, from top floor to shop floor, see the same information and have the same opportunity to make improvements before it’s too late.