Lean Manufacturing Is Perfect for Smaller Businesses (Part II)

In Part I, we discussed some practical principles of Lean manufacturing (I hope you tried the Five Whys on someone you know). Today we will discuss how to apply these principles at your company, associated challenges you may face, and what results you might expect. As you saw in Part I, Lean is rooted in common sense and is more straightforward than most people assume. Below are some of the keys ideas to successfully implementing Lean.

Secure Agreement from All Involved

First, because Lean changes a company’s behavior, you need to have buy-in at all levels. You can’t change design and manufacturing teams if managers or executives are not willing to change. And if managers and executives are willing to change but they don’t respect the teams themselves, Lean won’t work, either. You need to have agreement across the entire organization.

Don’t Treat Lean as a Project

If you treat Lean as a project with a start, middle, and end, the transformation will end when you get to the end of the project. The tendency is to snap back to the way things were tends to happen upon project completion. Kaizen, part of the Lean philosophy or mantra, is about continuous improvement. It indicates a change in company culture and behavior, which goes way beyond the idea of completing a project.

Walk a Mile in Your Employees’ Shoes

You must start at the beginning. That means knowing exactly what’s happening at your company today. Toyota uses the term gemba, which literally means go and see what’s happening, walk the shop floor, and live a day in the life of the workers. So, you go and look, and you go watch and you go see. If someone says, “I can’t do this because it’s pretty difficult,” try it for yourself and see what happens. That’s the first process. First understand, from the worker’s perspective and experience, what’s happening. Then you can truly understand the issue at hand.

And then consider digital visual management tools to make standards known and easily communicate issues to your departmental teams. This is a vital part of company and culture transformation: clearly showing people what’s happening. Digital whiteboards and sticky notes are simple management tools that enable people to see the problems and discuss them. Visuals such as traffic-light indicators (green for good, yellow for warning, and red for bad) can be very effective. Making it easy and convenient to visually go and see what’s happening is key to continuous improvement.

No Finger Pointing

Another concept is to focus on the solution rather than point fingers. The Lean philosophy has many concepts around mutual respect, whether it’s respecting a manager, a team member, a peer, or a subordinate. The focus should be the solution (rather than pointing fingers) and then making sure the goals are reasonable and attainable over time versus a big-bang project (with a ludicrous goal regarding production rates or reducing costs) that just isn’t realistic. A series of smalls wins, over time, equals big wins. It takes time and patience and focus.

Remember, there are digital visualization tools to assist your company in enacting changes. The digital tools for Lean also include other problem-solving tools like Five Why diagrams that help you quickly solve problems on the fly. Digital tools often make it easier and faster to implement Lean practices and make critical cultural and operational changes to your business.

What to Expect from a Lean Implementation

Some results will be hard values like reduced costs, material expenditures, and time, which you’d expect from implementing Lean across an organization. Other results include significant reduction in product quality issues or an increase in the rate of production. But there are also soft values; one of the most important ones is having autonomous teams. Gone is rigid management structure, where problems get escalated and often stuck at higher levels in the company. Lean teams are able and entrusted to basically solve problems themselves. The Lean methodology enables them with the practical tools necessary.

Without a Lean and efficient manufacturing process, the only other way to satisfy customer demand is by throwing money at it. If you throw inventory at customer demand, you make sure you have finished goods when customers ask for them because you’re not agile enough to create them on-demand or in a shorter time frame. Again, given the competitiveness of some industries today and the level of disruption, smaller companies just can’t afford such a strategy. It’s not sustainable for them, and they’ll jeopardize their business if they try. So Lean is all about doing more with less or the same with less without adding excess waste.

Why Lean Can Be More Successful at Smaller Companies

With a specific purpose in mind, smaller companies are better at adopting Lean methodologies. It’s much easier to get buy-in because you can typically get the CEO’s attention reasonably fast to get approvals, a process that is much more complicated in larger companies where politics and bureaucracy can prohibit quick decision-making at all levels.

Changing the culture of an organization is not a project. It’s about small continuous changes. Every manufacturing stand-up meeting is an opportunity to do something slightly better or to improve in some way. It’s not about sending a team off to a six-week training course to become Six Sigma black belts and expecting them to bring about change when they return, because that’s not the way people change.

People change continuously when there’s a slight change to behavior that’s beneficial and reinforced over time. People don’t change quickly. Going to boot camp for a week and coming back a different person doesn’t happen. So, start small and improve continuously. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

People are More Important than Products

Remember: it is the people that make it happen. A product doesn’t make itself, so the key is focusing on the team and the human element and the relationships and how they can improve, as a team is critical to success.

Even in highly automated industries, it’s still the humans behind the machines that effectively solve the problems and make the industry work efficiently. No amount of artificial intelligence will solve a design problem or fix a part of a process that isn’t working properly.

Teams are the lifeblood of organizations. Without teams, business doesn’t work, and every company is an aggregation of various teams at different levels, including manufacturing. If you can improve each one just a little bit, the cumulative benefit can be enormous to an organization.


Technology Can Help

Colleagues that used to meet in person now are dispersed—especially from precautions regarding COVID-19. Collaborating in hybrid environments is likely here to stay.

That’s another reason cloud-based applications like 3DLean are becoming so popular. You can be at home or the office or traveling and still attend daily Lean stand-up manufacturing meetings to help solve issues with your team.

If you have more questions about how 3DLean or Lean manufacturing tools that can help your business, don’t hesitate to contact your local reseller.


Adrian Wood

Adrian has spent over 20 years in customer-facing positions ranging from sales and marketing, to fulfilment and account management. His career focus has been on problem solving and development within emerging and rapid growth segments to enable customer success across a wide range of industries from High Tech to Retail and Logistics and across multiple disciplines such as Supply Chain, Manufacturing Simulation and Analytics.