Is Lean Manufacturing Dead?

Some people learning how to implement lean manufacturing may be asking themselves this question, especially with so many websites and books promoting alternative solutions to your manufacturing ills such as six sigma, business re-engineering, etc.

The answer is a very firm NO; at the end of the day lean manufacturing is a very simple and clear way of improving your business using a host of long established tools. Lean manufacturing may not be the answer to every problem within your business but then no “off the shelf” philosophy is going to give you the recipe for business success otherwise everyone would be successful!

With lean manufacturing what you need to succeed is a heavy dose of common sense and the will to achieve. It is about making common sense changes to improve your efficiency. There is no need to get into heavy statistical analysis as there can be in six sigma, it can be very simple indeed to implement.

However as I have already said, no “off the shelf” philosophy is going to turn your business into the next success story. Everything in life has it’s limitations. Lean is no different, if your management team is not committed, or not capable of making change then you will need to look at re-organizing and training your team. Many consultancies will focus on this side of your business, saying that the secret to business success is having the right people in the right positions, having the right structure and right management style. However if you don’t then provide them with the tools to actually do the job then the business will not climb to the top of the heap.

Some will say forget lean, look at six sigma. Why do you have to implement one without the other? Just because one set of consultants wants you to buy their services over the competitors does it mean that you can only have one set of methods? Does it mean that you have to sit in one camp and not the other? The two complement each other significantly, hence the drive for some to promote “lean sigma”, you can come up with quick major improvements using lean and then tune them significantly using the six sigma tools to reduce the variability within the processes.

Lean manufacturing is a collection of tools that you use to try to give the customer what they want, when they want it using the minimum amount of resource. Six Sigma is about reducing process variability to ensure that you always provide a quality product or service. They overlap in many areas. But neither really addresses design issues, how to come up with that brand new product or service idea that will take the market by storm. Hence various tools for product innovation and breakthrough technology.

At the end of the day, if you have no clear idea of what you want to do within your business then you will just wander in circles never moving forward. You must have clear direction, then use each and every tool available, picking and choosing what you need to meet the challenges of your business. Adapt each and every tool to meet your business needs, few if any can ever be implemented exactly as written in the manual. Not every tool in the arsenal of each philosophy is relevant to every company, there will never be a step by step guide to improving your business. Every business is different, every management structure has it’s quirks, every leader has his own style despite efforts by HR professionals to define distinctions.

Every method out there has it’s place, depending on the market you operate in, the maturity of your products and processes, what methods you chose to improve your competitiveness will change. It is no good focusing on tools to constantly improve manufacturing efficiencies and the like if you are in a market that demands new innovative products every six months. No point in producing last year’s “must have gadget” cheaper and faster than the competition if the market has moved on!

So lean still has its place, it is still a requirement, whether we call it lean or not if we start to make improvements within our business then you can almost guarantee that we will use some of the basic tools of lean. How many successful businesses do you know that implement some sort of housekeeping process, “a place for everything, and everything in its place”. Most do, some will call it 5s, 5C, just housekeeping or any other title they can think of, but no business can succeed without some sort of basic organization at this level. What organization does not try to standardize work to prevent variation, standardization through procedures, instructions, and training. All of these are significant parts of lean manufacturing.

But no tools can work on their own, there must be a goal. The goal for most businesses is at the end of the day to make money. Does not matter how flowery their HR and PR statements are regarding how they will develop and involve their employees, how they will protect the environment and help the community, each and every business is there with one aim; to make money. They do this by being efficient, by having products that meet market needs.

So make money you must have what the customer wants and be able to deliver it to him when he wants it at the right price, right level of quality, and support it as necessary. If you can’t then you will not succeed. Lean can help you with ensuring that you can deliver on time, that the quality is right and the price is right.

No philosophy or method is an answer in its own right, but if you want to learn how to implement lean manufacturing then you can not go wrong. The ideas and tools will always be applicable to any manufacturing or service company no matter what industry you are in.