I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this story. A manufacturer invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in Lean initiatives, hires consultants, works for 6 months to make vital and profitable process improvements, and then … the project winds down, the consultants leave, and people slip back into their old habits. Most if not all of the benefits are lost, despite the hard work and investment, because the process improvements couldn’t be embedded and sustained with how the work actually gets done.
How can you ensure that your Lean procedures and continuous process improvement initiatives will be followed? While training programs and corporate manuals may provide a sense of accomplishment, they can’t actually enforce the consistent practice of Lean behaviors necessary for success. Instead, Lean succeeds when the enforcement is embedded directly into the processes, through such mechanisms as automated directed manufacturing, reviews and signoffs. Workers can then be guided through new procedures, reinforcing new behaviors until they become habits.
Here is the challenge: embedding enforcement is not easy if you’re manufacturing IT systems can’t support frequent process changes. This is what we typically see with older manufacturing execution systems, which typically require a software change and / or a new release of the software to incorporate change. Often changes must be made in multiple “point” or departmental systems for processes that cross functional boundaries – for example, a quality inspection embedded in a manufacturing process, resulting in further challenges and delays. To make matters worse, if you have multiple plants running different manufacturing or paper-based systems, as most enterprises do, then your initial Lean process improvements may need to be done manually, as a way to test for improved results. Even if the results are stunning, rolling these improvements out across your enterprise is nearly impossible. If you cannot quickly share the fruits of your Kaizen events across all sites, you’re losing a huge part of the value of your Lean initiatives.
On the other hand, if you have a global manufacturing platform that enables you to model, execute and share your business processes, then you can easily standardize best practices spanning departments and locations. This puts you in a whole different ballpark.
As I discussed in my first post on this subject, if you can make process changes quickly, with minimal burden on your IT department, then you can create a virtuous circle with the business users. When process improvements are rapidly adopted into the manufacturing systems, plant workers get more engaged and are more likely to bring forth more improvements. The next step is to drive those improvements out to every plant and worker in a way that can be monitored and enforced seamlessly.
I would propose that this is the real key to Lean success. In the end, a great idea doesn’t count for much if the improvements can’t actually be executed and sustained. Microsoft makes this point in their white paper, The Importance of Manufacturing Visibility: “Remember, though, that manufacturing visibility is merely a tool to achieve business objectives. Although visibility can gauge the progress of operations … the real work still occurs on the plant floor – and in the minds of employees dedicated to improving that work.”
There’s no better way to be sure that employees follow procedures – and ensure the success of your Lean investment – than by embedding automated enforcement into your operations throughout the enterprise.