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Lean Forward: Focusing on the 'thousand little improvements'

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From medical parts suppliers to Starbucks baristas, the auto industry’s model of lean manufacturing continues to guide businesses as they race to trim costs, improve quality and deliver more value to customers.

At its core, the lean framework — developed by Toyota to drive out all forms of waste — seems intuitive: A worker shouldn’t have to take 10 steps if five will do, time production to demand to reduce inventory, focus on continuously improving processes.

But managers may soon find that these and other tenets of lean thinking can’t just be applied as a set of directives.

“It takes the total commitment of leadership,” said Scot Hammond, Lauren Manufacturing’s continuous improvement manager, who helped the company transition to lean production more than a decade ago.

Hammond suggests for the model to fully pay off, the organization as a whole must buy into a new philosophy.

“In western culture, many times we aren’t very patient in our approach to problem solving. We want to come in with guns blazing and be done. But we often don’t know if we permanently solved the root cause or if it’s going to get back up and shoot us in the back,” he said.

MAKING CHANGES

For Lauren, rethinking operations meant changes both small and large. Organizational efforts focused on innovations that could reduce or eliminate the leading causes of waste.

This would eventually allow value-added processes such as splicing and tape application to be performed in a single production flow during the polymer extrusion.

Other changes were as dramatic as painting all equipment white to give the factory a cleaner look and to allow maintenance issues to surface sooner. Visual aids such as photographs and videos were introduced to guide employees on standard work procedures.

“We try to include our production operators in our continuous improvement discussions and they bring solid input,” Hammond said.

It may be something as simple as creating a hanger for a tool or re-positioning a piece of equipment, but Hammond notes those are exactly the kinds of fixes that are easy to implement and lead to significant reductions of waste in the long term.

“We need to be looking for those thousand little improvements that we can work on every day,” he said.

In the end, the results for Lauren included large reductions in inventory and shorter lead times for customers. And while this brought greater efficiency, jobs were retained as the bottom line improved.

“Each day you’re getting one step closer to where you want to be,” Hammond said. ““It can be very exciting to watch.”

READ MORE

“How to Manage a Successful Lean Program that Creates Customer Value and Drives Business Growth”