Sometimes adopting lean manufacturing means adding more people to a process. Eric Ethington, a lean product and process development coach, previously worked in the auto supply business. In a pump assembly product line, the typical cell had six operators. They came up with a new cell design that called for three more operators. The new cell helped the process really hum, Ethington says. It was so successful that they received a call from the finance department to check the data since it was now cheaper making it in the United States vs. Mexico. 

Productivity had gone up, and investment in that line went down by 40% since they were able to get more out of the same equipment.

“It’s almost a little bit frustrating,” Ethington says. “People are looking for what’s next, the next shiny new improvement thing vs. doing lean really well.”

Lean has been around a long time. Chances are, you’ve been exposed to it already sometime in your career. But perhaps it’s time to go further.

 “One of the things that’s somewhat surprising is companies are not more advanced with lean,” says Richard Rahn, co-founder and principal of manufacturing at Leonardo Group Americas LLC. “We’re almost in the year 2020, lean is not something new. You might think everyone is already mature with lean efforts, everyone’s already there, but that’s not really true.”

Whether you’re a longtime lean practitioner or just getting started, lean can make your life better, give you your time back, and make customers happy. While it does take work—continuous improvement always does—the benefits can be impressive.

Ethington says they were able to achieve these productivity gains with certain specific changes. “We really understood the detail of the work,” he says. “We would observe the operator, look at the motions. We were counting the number of motions (not cycle time). This is significant because if you walk out and start timing someone, it changes things.” Operators might get nervous and start rushing, which might be faster at the expense of quality. The reverse could also happen, he says. Someone could “catch an attitude, ‘I’ll show you how long it can take.’” If you just pay attention to cycle time, you might not watch what the operators are doing, he says. “Looking at motion forces you to understand the work better.”

And the results validated this approach. In order to get the most out of lean, Ethington says it is important to focus on improvements every day—not once a quarter at a kaizen event.

Standard Work, Happier Staff

One of his Massachusetts manufacturing clients illustrated the benefits of life with lean for everyone, says Paul W. Critchley, president of New England Lean Consulting.

“When we first got there, every business metric was kind of moving in the wrong direction.” Customers would call, saying, “‘We were promised it a week ago and it’s still not here yet,’ only to learn that they won’t get it for another X amount of weeks.”

So Critchley and the client got to work. He asked, “How do you do what you do every day?” They did setup reduction, visual management, 5S. “There’s no one thing that was the standout,” Critchley says. “It wasn’t like a home run. It was a lot of singles and doubles.”

Last year they were able to bring the overdue orders down to zero. For six months in a row, the monthly records improved. Sales and profitability were up, and overtime was down.

The people were the ones who saw the benefits. One man pulled Critchley aside to say thank you. “That’s the reason we do what we do,” Critchley said, “because of that. Nobody likes to go to work, bust your hump, and many days, leave feeling like at 5 p.m. you’re farther behind than at 7 a.m. when you arrived. The biggest intrinsic reward I get is doing what we do, and having people like that guy grab me and say, ‘My life is better now.’”

Setup reduction and 5S are his typical starting points. “When I walk onto a shop floor, if they’ve never taken a look at how setups take, it takes longer,” Critchley says. “I like to start there. It’s the biggest bang for the buck in getting time back.” 

Critchley recalls a client in the construction industry. An operator was putting parts on a pallet. First he was digging through a bin looking for bolts. When the operations manager stopped by and asked how long the setup was taking, the operator said 15 to 20 minutes. In fact, it had actually been 47.

Eventually they got the setup time to under 10 minutes. Now that setups take 10 minutes vs. 50, operators have 40 minutes to clean, organize the station and do another setup reduction on another machine, Critchley says.

Whether working with engineers or doctors, lean can cut down on meaningless tasks, Critchley says. “Don’t pay them to look for pens and papers. Standard work is about giving people back their time so they can do what they want to do and are getting paid to do.”

Still, getting results isn’t easy. “It’s not all rainbows and unicorns,” Critchley said. Many times skeptical employees think these ideas sound like empty campaign promises.

Strong Leadership

While companies like Toyota have strong leadership and don’t let internal practices slide, many companies don’t really have that, says Rahn. “Toyota is so far down the road, when I stack Toyota compared to other companies, with all aspects of lean, culture, how they treat their people, Toyota really comes out on top,” Rahn says.

Jean Cunningham, board chairperson of the Lean Enterprise Institute, saw this firsthand when she toured several Toyota plants in Japan this year. “Quality was a value before anything else,” she says. “Finishing a part wasn’t important if it wasn’t good quality. They had deep respect for employees, allowing them to immediately get help, and say ‘This isn’t right.’”

This level of respect is one thing she really loves about lean. “It’s all about respecting the knowledge and capability of every employee at all levels. Everyone can seriously contribute to the purpose and mission of the organization. Everyone can be on the field all the time. You don’t have to have bench sitters,” Cunningham says.

Culture is just one aspect of lean, however. She notes that the tools should not be overlooked.

One important tool relates to line design. Leonardo Group focuses on the industrial engineering side of lean. And there is still a need for this. The Leonardo Group surveyed their email list and asked an audience of lean specialists: “How comfortable are you with the lean methodology approach?” Out of 150 responses, “Less than 20% said somewhat or very comfortable, or 80% not comfortable. We view that as a big gap. The lean industrial engineering piece of it is essential,” says Rahn.

Though it may seem daunting, keep in mind that the end results will be worth it. As Rahn says, just about any company would want to continue down this path—if asked, should we go back to the way we used to do things?—no one would want the old days.

Gerard Leone, principal, Leonardo Group Americas, has noticed “People are focusing less on the ‘low level’ tools. They have learned that there isn’t a lot of value in the simple tools. They are still useful but they are not going to get too, too far,” Leone says. “People are beginning to see the importance of culture. We have had lip service to that for a very long time.”

In addition, he says, “Executives are beginning to understand the importance of having a solid foundation. I have seen this with engineering departments who say, ‘Don’t worry about designing a good line because we will just fix it with kaizen.’”

When approaching line design, Leone says, “Let the data guide you, yet do not forget your common sense. Data will guide you and common sense will get you to a safe harbor.”

Management Support

Jim Huntzinger, president and founder of Lean Frontiers, says an enduring lean question is “How can we get management on board?” This has been the most common question over the past 10, twenty and thirty years. Typically this is referring to executive management.

To answer that, the motivation for doing lean shouldn’t be anything other than improving the business. “Don’t do lean for the sake of lean,” Huntzinger says. Ask “What is our mission as a business? Then consider the reason you are in business and what you want to accomplish. Examine the priorities and gaps and what you need to do to become a lean enterprise.” Q