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What is Lean Manufacturing? Optimize Your Operations for a Post-COVID World

As COVID-19 infiltrated the world seemingly overnight, the supply chain came under duress. Nearly every industry was affected, many in surprising and unpredictable ways; some goods hit peak demand, while others languished. For example, while the hospitality sector buckled, consumer products went on a tear as people stocked up.

As supplies of some essentials dwindled, it was all too easy to point the finger at lean manufacturing—specifically its focus on “just-in-time” inventory. But was lean manufacturing the culprit, or was that assumption based on a misunderstanding of what lean manufacturing accomplishes?

Let’s find out more about what lean manufacturing is, why it wasn’t the cause of the pandemic-related supply chain crisis, and why manufacturers should consider adopting lean methods in a post-COVID ecosystem.

What is lean manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing is often confused with its marquee byproduct, which is “just-in-time” inventory. But it’s far more than that: the goal of lean manufacturing is to improve efficiency and effectiveness throughout the entire manufacturing process—from production to delivery.

Its main goal is to eliminate waste, which is defined in this case as having to perform unnecessary work or use unnecessary resources due to errors or poor organization/communication. By eliminating waste and optimizing the supply chain, companies can boost cash flow and ideally increase profits.

What does this waste entail? The trade association ASQExcellence (ASQE) uses the acronym “DOWNTIME” to define the eight main causes of waste that lean manufacturing addresses:

  1. Defects. Flawed products cause waste because they have to be replaced, requiring additional labor and more materials.
  2. Overproduction. Stocking too much of a product without the appropriate demand leads to material waste, as well as a tie-up of capital in products that aren’t being used.
  3. Waiting. Wasted time occurs when one task is held up because another is not yet completed, such as on a production line where items are sealed manually instead of utilizing a carton sealing machine.
  4. Non-utilized talent. Employees who don’t feel their talents are being used or recognized will disengage or seek employment elsewhere, leading to a potential labor shortage—and wasting the investment made in their training.
  5. Transportation. Moving products from one place to another wastes time and resources; companies should aim to use the most efficient process possible (even with things as simple as conveyors) or position a factory closer to the end customer.
  6. Inventory. Surplus inventory wastes both space and the capital that is tied up in it.
  7. Motion. This is wasted energy from a machine or person. For example, if someone is frequently leaving their workstation to bring cartons to colleagues because carton flow racks are not available, it creates wasted motion. Similarly, employees can waste energy if they aren’t protected with items like anti-fatigue mats.
  8. Extra-processing. This refers to adding more value than a customer needs, such as extra features that won’t be used.

Why lean manufacturing didn’t cause the COVID-19 shortages

It’s easy to say that store shelves would have been more amply stocked if only manufacturers had been a little less “lean” in their inventories, but it’s an unrealistic answer. After all, the pandemic represented a once-in-a-lifetime event that no one could have predicted or solved for, which meant it wouldn’t have been cost-effective for a company to manufacture a mountain of toilet paper or have other goods linger in a warehouse, incurring costs of the storage as well as insurance and potentially extra labor.

The concept of lean manufacturing encompasses an end-to-end process. So, while one tenet of lean manufacturing is just-in-time inventory, the others focus on optimizing flow and reducing waste in other areas of your operations and facility.

In fact, lean manufacturing emphasizes flexibility due to its pared-down processes, which was an asset to companies that were able to reap the success of a pivot during COVID-19. For example, organizations that supply foodservice companies were able to make a profit by adjusting their production lines to produce for everyday consumers at grocery stores rather than the restaurants they were used to serving.

How manufacturers can implement lean principles today

As companies consider a post-pandemic world, they are increasingly figuring out how they can retool to optimize their workflows, capitalizing on lessons learned to elevate their new status quo. It’s just like if your house suffered weather damage and you were rebuilding: would you replicate the living arrangements you had before, faulty layout and all, or use the opportunity to build something more effective?
If you’ve been analyzing your current processes to uncover areas for improvement, it’s the ideal time to consider adopting more lean manufacturing principles. While realizing that the true benefits of lean manufacturing come from a whole-company commitment, there are still ways you can begin while seeking out training on how you can do a complete upgrade.

Here are five steps to help you get started:

  1. Get leadership and key players on board.
    The decision has to come from the top for your efforts to succeed, but you also need to sell the idea to those who are affected, such as those who run the production floor.
     
  2. Choose an area that could adapt easily to lean manufacturing.
    It’s quite likely that your whole operation would benefit from these changes, but hone in on just one process or department to start. For example, if you have multiple production lines, choose a smaller-volume line to experiment with new ways of working.
     
  3. Set KPIs.
    Key performance indicators (KPIs) set measurable goals to determine performance. Ask yourself which KPIs make sense for that area of improvement. Is it producing more wares, or producing the same amount in less time? You could map your KPI to a reduction in wait time.
     
  4. Train appropriate personnel.
    Adopting lean manufacturing will require ongoing education and a certain amount of salesmanship to achieve buy-in from those who have “always done it a certain way.” Taking time to explain why and how you’re doing something will enhance endorsement; in fact, it may be wise to gain momentum from a group of employees who are already known for their engagement and commitment to the company’s success and can assist in your quest for lean processes.
     
  5. Assess and analyze results and determine next steps.
    Your KPIs should include a realistic timetable for when you might start to see results. But don’t be discouraged if the initial outcome isn’t as impressive as you had hoped; mastery won’t happen overnight, and there will be setbacks as you test and try. The good news is that this attitude of willingness and openness to continuous improvement is a key aspect of embracing lean manufacturing.

Use the lean approach to make large improvements in manufacturing processes

Once you get a taste of the benefits of lean manufacturing, you are likely to find continuous avenues for implementing it to boost your profit and productivity. Align yourself with those who have already started their lean manufacturing journey so you can learn from them, and then focus on bringing the rest of your team with you to realize gains in your workflows and production.

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