A lean manufacturing strategy provides the blueprint manufacturers need to improve their processes and quality in every plant and production center they operate. It guides the definition, deployment, management, and optimization of all lean manufacturing goals while putting customers and their needs at the heart of all improvement efforts. When effectively implemented, a lean manufacturing strategy empowers companies to attract new customers, delight existing ones, and drive higher gross margins—leading to solid, sustained growth.
The Case for Adopting a Lean Manufacturing Strategy
Lean manufacturing strategies help manufacturers get the most out of their limited resources by maximizing customer value while minimizing waste, synchronizing workflows, and aligning priorities across the business. By adopting a lean approach organization-wide, manufacturers are better positioned to attract and retain customers, accelerate production, shield operations from unexpected interruptions and rapid changes in demand, and plan for potential labor shortages that could impact daily production schedules.
There are eight categories of waste that a lean manufacturing strategy is particularly effective at addressing: overproduction; waiting on order status and shipments; the lack of inventory to fulfill an order; transportation delays; a backlog of orders on the shop floor; defects caught by quality assurance post-production; redundant or corrective processes, and under-utilized workers. Defining a lean manufacturing strategy that attacks these areas of waste can reduce a manufacturer’s roadblocks to completing orders on time and meeting customer commitments.
Adopting a lean manufacturing strategy also benefits product quality by reducing variability, eliminating non-value-adding steps in production, standardizing work processes, identifying and resolving production constraints, and providing real-time performance visibility.
10 Steps To Defining A Lean Manufacturing Strategy
As management teams embark on defining their lean manufacturing strategies, there are 10 essential steps to follow.
- Create lean manufacturing objectives that are traceable from the shop floor to the top floor and provide data on financial performance.
Manufacturers increasingly leverage Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and real-time analytics to enhance visibility across their operations. The resulting insights help to identify whether lean manufacturing techniques are performing well or need more work and provide invaluable method for equating shop floor performance to financial results.
- Define metrics that provide insights on performance for each lean goal.
Manufacturers are applying predictive analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to key performance indicators (KPIs) and other metrics to better understand how their decisions impact lean manufacturing performance. AI gives manufacturers advanced insights into their performance in key areas, including predictive maintenance, dynamic pricing, fraud detection, churn prediction, personalized recommendations, and market forecasting. The benefits of better decision-making enabled by AI are often seen first on the shop floor, while the financial results generally become evident months later.
- Give every employee a chance to own the objectives.
Leading manufacturers use digital tools, such as advanced collaboration platforms, knowledge management systems, and lean analytics dashboards to foster employee ownership of goals and drive continuous improvement. These technologies empower cross-functional teams by capturing institutional knowledge and providing real-time transparency into progress and success metrics. With every employee engaged in tracking how their efforts advance the organization, manufacturers can build an inclusive culture of improvement, which is essential for lean processes to flourish and deliver results.
- Use value-stream mapping to understand under-performing areas.
Value stream mapping (VSM) is a technique for analyzing, designing, and managing the process flows required to bring a product to a customer. Process mining software can support VSM by revealing the critical process gaps that drive defects and performance issues, as well as uncovering the root causes of production inefficiencies. Meanwhile, automated VSM helps identify how instructions, tool movements, and calibrations can be improved as part of an orchestrated strategy. For example, one aerospace facility automatically checked work instructions against workflows and uncovered operator confusion over handling custom order exceptions, which was cutting custom order output by 9%.
- Incorporate value steams into process pilots.
VSM is invaluable for defining a roadmap to lean process improvement since it can look at three states—current, ideal, and future—to expose process deficiencies. Some manufacturers are simultaneously redesigning their manufacturing processes using digital twin simulations to model future-state value streams. These pilots provide the advantage of isolating only the most relevant lean manufacturing factors over time and measuring them using predictive analytics.
- Set takt time goals for each manufacturing process.
Takt time is a formula for calculating the time it takes to make a product that meets a customer’s demand. After defining each process’ future value stream down to the workflow level, manufacturers should set takt time goals for each. Ideally, takt time performance for each process will be tracked over time and be used in combination with value stream maps to find gaps that cause quality or fulfillment delays.
- Use VSM insights and takt time analysis to redesign workflows.
The ability to interpret and act on real-time data to course-correct workflows is the cornerstone of getting lean manufacturing right. The most common approach to combining the insights gained from value stream mapping and takt time analysis to workflow improvements is Six Sigma. With its DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) framework, Six Sigma serves to orchestrate every production aspect to align with customers’ needs, preferences, and requirements.
- Implement a visual control system to track plant floor performance.
A visual control system facilitates the ability to not only track gains in plant performance but also understand how those gains can be attributed to lean manufacturing strategies and then report the results with real-time updates using key metrics and KPIs. The use of low-code dashboards as the basis for new, more intuitive, real-time visual control systems is revolutionizing today’s lean manufacturing initiatives since they provide immediate feedback on how effective a given series of lean manufacturing decisions are.
- Apply insights to operational system data.
Using the insights gained from value stream mapping and lean plant-floor improvements, manufacturers can define lean strategies to more effectively manage production flows, inventory levels, order fulfillment, and demand forecasting. Increasingly, this takes the form of applying AI models to enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution system (MES) data to streamline operations. For example, AI can be used to analyze historical data for accurate forecasting and production planning. Similarly, machine learning applied to real-time data can be used to dynamically improve scheduling and inventory control. With AI-driven optimization of workflows, inventory, and fulfillment, manufacturers can boost productivity, cut costs, and enhance customer satisfaction.
- Implement plant-floor automation programs to reduce waste.
Automating material flows with mobile robots can help to reduce waste in multiple ways. The robots can improve efficiency by reducing unnecessary motion and alleviating extra processing while also enabling quality improvements that reduce product defects. At the same time, robots have proven effective at offsetting the chronic labor shortage many manufacturers face. In this way, intelligent automation and robotics deliver measurable cost, quality, and margin gains when used as part of a lean manufacturing strategy.
By adopting the 10 steps to a lean manufacturing strategy outlined here, manufacturers can maximize customer value while minimizing waste, synchronizing workflows, and aligning priorities across the business—better positioning themselves for profitability and growth.