What is Lean, you ask? Well, you need to attend the PLASA™ business panel session at LDI called The Lean Toolbox and hear what real businesses are doing to become more Lean. In the meantime, let me give you the nickel tour of the key concepts.
Lean manufacturing or production is the practice of eliminating the waste of resources. Waste is defined as anything that does not create value for the customer. Lean advocates seek the sources of waste and introduce tools, processes, and scheduling that addresses the issue. Service businesses, especially those that handle technology such as rental equipment or hardware for permanent installation will find that Lean practices apply to them as well. While even the largest rental shop in the world won't catch up to a Toyota parts factory in efficiency, there are true financial and quality benefits from adopting even the simplest of Lean process improvement techniques.
In order to better understand ideas, I have developed this primer on the most common of Lean terms. This won't turn you into a Lean company, but at least you can better follow the conversation at the PLASA Lean Toolbox panel discussion.
Kaizen is the discipline of continual improvement of productivity, safety, and effectiveness. It comes from the Japanese manufacturing production model that evolved after World War II. Kai- means "change" or "correct", and -zen means "good". Kaizen philosophy is to apply continual small changes on a regular basis and can affect every aspect of business and personal life. Kaizen is a lifestyle rather than a program, which is probably why it meets resistance in Western culture, wher e "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is often the standard.
Within Kaizen are many well-developed concepts that have more successfully infiltrated the West, such as quality circles, just in time delivery, Kanban (manufacturing logistics), 5S (process standardization), and TPS (Toyota Production System). In a technology rental company, the Kaizen system of filling a rental order would dictate that spare lamps be restocked in time with rental orders (Just-in-time), cable bins be organized for ease of access (5S), empty cases moved just before they are needed from storage to the cable packaging area (Kanban), and work areas setup with the correct tools in the same place every time (5S). A zero defects plan on rental orders and equipment would be designed in a TPS initiative. In Kaizen, it makes sense to have workers whose job it is to push supplies and materials to the work area instead of having the specialist fetch them. And because everything in the warehouse is labeled - contents, locations, aisles - workers spend less time wondering where to go. Everything and everyone has a place to be at any given time.
The philosophy of Kaizen may seem counter-productive in the reactionary world we Westerners tend to live in, but if you embrace each component for how it could help improve your product, eventually you come to realize that Kaizen is a journey and not a destination. The philosophy of Kaizen has spawned various process improvement disciplines that you need to better understand:
Kanban is the art of production scheduling based on the finite demands of "push" and "pull". The supply of production is gauged to meet the demand of customers. That demand runs through the supply chain triggering an efficient amount of activity to meet the upcoming need. In western terms this is akin to the concept of good project management, but goes beyond the limitations of individual effort.
In Systems Integration for instance, the confirmation of a boardroom installation would trigger a series of events. One of those tasks would be the rack build and testing. For this to happen efficiently, components would be ordered to arrive "just-in-time" and pushed to the workspace just as the previous rack is finished and sent to the next area. The stock parts: screws, cable, connectors, and rack panels would be picked and delivered along with the components. The tidy assembly area (see 5S) would allow the skilled worker to use his or her time efficiently. For example, opening boxes and removing packing materials adds no value to the customer. Therefore, these tasks are handled away from the assembly area by less expensive workers trained in proper unpacking and consolidation.
5S stands for the Japanese words seiri (tidiness), seiton (orderliness), seiso (cleanliness), seiketsu (standardization), and shitsuke (discipline). These words have been successfully anglicized into Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. An important concept in 5S is that the work space should allow any worker to quickly and easily know where to find what they are looking for. A 5S warehouse has a lot of signs, labels, and lines on the floor to show where things go. When you understand how one works towards 5S, the signs start to make a lot of sense.
is the process of removing unnecessary items from the work area. Westerners might liken this to cleaning out the garage, but Sorting is a continual process that quickly identifies foreign items in the workspace and removes them. (Like when my wife dumps something she doesn't need into my garage workshop!)
Set in Order
is the art of customizing the work area for maximum efficiency. Items that are used the most remain the closest to the worker. Items that are used least are taken away (to be delivered when needed: Kanban). Imagine the workstation of a Moving Light Quality Control Technician. Frequently used tools and parts would be at arm's reach, perhaps on a rolling cart. The instruments would be set in a production line, but maybe a circle is more efficient than a straight line.
is the art of cleaning the work area, equipment, and tools. The goal is to identify and eliminate sources of contamination. The moving light tech will probably want to keep dirt and dust from the unit he is working from getting into the unit next to it. Or, avoid accidentally reusing a stripped bolt or broken part. Shine also gets tools and other resources back into their places for easy access by the next worker.5S also requires that we
workflow by assigning tasks and schedules. Everyone should know their responsibility in the process. The process should be easy to maintain and that means the simpler the better.
is the process of ensuring that the previous four S's survive. Goals need to be continually analyzed and processes reinforced. Training is a key component of Sustain as are team meetings focused on 5S issues.
You know when you have walked into a 5S warehouse when you see the signs and labels. The floor is marked in various colors indicating what that area is reserved for. Tools are hung on outlined boards so that you can easily see which unit is missing. Workbenches are free of obstacles like computer monitors or phones. Everything seems to be on wheels. Signs explain how to do things and pictures tell you what to find inside that cabinet and where. As you look around, it only takes a few seconds for you to become oriented and feel like you could contribute to the workflow.
5S and Kanban are more effective when a team champions the ongoing changes. Quality Circles are volunteer teams of personnel that are trained to identify and analyze work-related problems and present their solutions to management. The members typically represent key disciplines such as safety, product design, and workflow process.
Imagine a large rental warehouse. Management (or workers) have identified that employees are taking too many steps around the warehouse to fill orders. The Quality Team examines the problem and determines that shared resources such as parts, cables, electrical and repair should be in the middle of the warehouse and the departments (audio, video, lighting, automated lighting, projection, and screens) should encircle that location. The team consults with workers and then develops a design. Once management reviews and approves, the warehouse is rearranged and the team moves on to the next improvement need.
The Toyota Production System (TPS) is not easily summarized, but can best be understood by its goals. Where Kaizen is focused broadly on changes for the better, the goal of TPS is to add value: Value is an item or feature for which the customer is willing to pay. For instance, a client is willing to pay for clean, well-maintained rental equipment. They are not inclined to pay for the ten minutes you spent looking for the right tool.
In TPS, every activity in the production process is classified as either adding value or waste. Anything more than an exact quantity is waste and should be eliminated. This applies to materials as well as labor. Likewise, anything less than the ideal quantity creates extra work, which is also waste. The same concept applies to quality and timing as well. An imperfection in the product, early or late delivery, or excess supplies create waste. TPS addresses the source of the waste and tightens up the process.
All of the above is probably a little bit familiar, and you will likely discover that some things you already do mirror the philosophies and practices of Kaizen and its subgroups. In the months to come I will strive to connect these ideas to the business processes I teach. In the meantime, do plan on attending LDI and joining me at the Business Resource Group session The Lean Toolbox: How to Increase Your Earnings Without Raising Your Prices.
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