Manufacturing has changed a lot since the 1950s when Toyota Motor Company of Japan introduced the concept of implementing an integrated process to more efficiently manage equipment, materials and its workforce throughout the production cycle. Over time, this technique allowed Toyota to deliver more reliable, higher-quality products faster — and at a lower cost — than other mass produced automakers. By the time we entered the 1980s and 1990s, the practice of eliminating waste to create customer value with fewer resources had caught on in the U.S. and other countries.
Fast-forward to 2014: While the concept and best practices of the Lean production system remain intact, the implementation on the plant floor faces a major facelift. That’s simply because the entire manufacturing dynamic has transformed to include new technology, new global competition, new government regulations, and a hyper-connected world of intelligent devices and social networks that enable seamless communication between companies and their customers.
Times have changed. And, in order to remain an agile manufacturer, Lean methodologies must adapt and change too. Otherwise, organizations will remain stuck in the 1950s while the competition soars into 21st century manufacturing.
Before rushing into a new Lean manufacturing model, however, it’s a worthwhile exercise to take a step back to identify what’s different and the direct impact it has on lean processes.
- Technology is a good thing – early pioneers of Lean systems pursued strategies of removing IT from production processes, viewing this technology as an additional step which could be “leaned” out of processes to remove waste. This philosophy was probably reasonable in the 1970s when technology was in its early, nascent stages; today, however, is a completely different situation with a level of complexity that necessitates reliance on IT systems to remove the waste of manual processes.
- Leveraging the right technology – Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM) and Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence (MI) have become instrumental in the quest to add efficiency into scheduling production, tracking inventory, synchronizing material flows and increasing visibility across the supply chain. The Just-in-Time mentality to deliver product is now being transplanted by a need to be more predictive and insightful. Manufactures need to know what customers want—and for that, they are turning to Big Data and predictive analytics. While Big Data deals with different data sets that don’t always seem relevant to the plant floor, everything in the from the supply chain, plant floor, enterprise, and beyond must be interconnected in today’s day and age. Therefore, it’s time to analyze the impact of every data stream on the production of goods.
- Global competition – Cost pressure and the need to locate closer to end users has only accelerated the push to go global; as a result, the need to understand foreign cultures and designing new products and services for them has never been more acute. Lean must now be agile to support continuous innovation while comprehending the complexity associated with an ever-changing, fast-paced global world. All of these elements require a fresh look at Lean manufacturing practices.
- Government regulations – New regulations emerge in specific industries all of the time, forcing companies to reexamine processes. The Food Safety Act, for example, is a sweeping reform of food safety laws. That means, back to the drawing board for many companies—especially those companies that are still paper-based. Time to digitize processes and reevaluate how quality practices are implemented, tracked, and audited.
- Hyper-connected communication – The new customer service interface is social media—especially from a mobile device. This means someone can post a comment or photo about your product anytime, anywhere. And, they expect an immediate response. Manufacturers must somehow capture the information—down to every last tweet—and sift through it to identify trends that can be pushed back into the research, development, and production cycles.
Lean manufacturing is still a very relevant business practice. But, like everything else in manufacturing, the process must progress to keep pace with the organizational shifts happening all around it. Perhaps that means new conversations will have to take place between CIOs and manufacturing executives. Or, that traditionally accepted best manufacturing practices have to get better. Either way, Lean is not going away, it’s just in a new phase of innovation and transformation.
What will your Lean strategy look like in the future?