Lean Manufacturing or the Lean Production System, another Japanese-inspired process improvement initiative, is focused on eliminating waste in work processes. Waste in this regard means anything that does not create “value” (or essentially anything a customer wouldn’t pay for). Waste can be in the manufacturing process itself, in badly distributed work loads, wasted time due to poorly located equipment, standing inventory, unusable by-products, defects in quality, and so on.
What was only coined as Lean Manufacturing in the late 1980s, was developed originally by engineers at Toyota Motors Co in the decades before, and called the Toyota Production System (TPS), as a means to enhance its competitiveness with low cost improvements. What Toyota ultimately achieved became, like Six Sigma, a management philosophy. Academics and business leaders took notice when Toyota started its rise to prominence with economy cars in the US during the oil crisis of the 1970s and the building of manufacturing plants in the US in the years thereafter.
The tools Lean Manufacturing uses to eliminate waste are extensive. Some tools attempt to understand the processes as they are designed, such as value-stream mapping. Many are focused on a specific part of a process, such as 5S, which looks to improve on poorly organized work areas. Others, like Jidoka, aim to partially automate manufacturing process. Yet others feed into the management philosophy aspects of Lean Manufacturing, like Gemba, which is basically a call to spend time out of an office and onto the plant floor. First-hand experience with manufacturing problems and inefficiencies make for better, more informed improvements.
The tools, however, are not just internally oriented. One of Toyota’s primary philosophies revolved around Muda (waste) by looking at the processes from a customer’s perspective. Anything that doesn’t add value to the customer gets eliminated. Toyota went so far as sharing and training suppliers and distributors/dealers in Lean Manufacturing in order to improve the processes of those businesses, thus ultimately benefitting Toyota itself.
By definition, Lean Manufacturing is primarily focused on production systems, but the concept has spawned numerous offshoots, such as Lean Six Sigma, the Lean Startup, and Lean Project Management. Ultimately, it’s applicable to just about any process where waste and non-value added activities are present – and that’s just about every process.
Feature Image: Laurens van Lieshout