"Lean” is a way of organizing work and production designed to remove any activity or process that does not produce value for the customer. Its premise is that when activities produce waste it is costly for any business.

The first step in implementing lean is to distinguish between valuable activities and the ones that create waste, says Ryan Thornton, an internal consultant and teacher of lean manufacturing at Kepner-Tregoe, a management consulting firm based on Research Way.

Waste of overprocessing. This type of waste involves making more product than is required by the next step in a process or making something faster or earlier than is actually required. One example is making extra copies, like forms in duplicate or triplicate, when one is sufficient. This also creates a twin waste of extra inventory.

Push and pull. What lean proposes for getting rid of the waste of overprocessing is to implement a pull system, one that produces to customer demand. Rather than having a contract specifying that the customer will submit a firm order for a month’s worth of inventory, the supplier should be producing only to the firm’s order, says Thornton.

Thornton adds that if the client suddenly needs an increase of 10 percent immediately, then a lean organization, with reduced change-over time, should be able to adapt and run the extra product without causing mass chaos in the production process.

There is a good reason why more people are not implementing true pull systems — they work best with relatively high volumes and in relatively stable environments. Although it is more difficult to implement a pull system when demand fluctuates and volume is not constant, Thornton maintains that there are steps within any type of process where it is possible to implement a pull system.

Reducing time. To reduce time a manufacturer must look first at activities that can only be done when the equipment has come to a stop or is idling. Thornton offers an example from a previous job on which a huge coil needed to be changed while a machine idled. Instead of starting preparations for the coil change only when the need arises, as tends to happen, someone from shipping could go get the coil and get it prepped ahead of time. When it is time to change over, the required people and tools should be ready to go. Where it is possible, change processes can also be automated.

Another way to reduce change-over time is to carefully examine a process. A company might set up video cameras to see how different operators perform a particular process.

Wasting time. Waste happens any time that resources — either machines or people — are sitting idle. A truly lean organization, therefore, requires that employees are sufficiently cross trained to be able to do whatever work needs to be done at a particular time.

An example of waiting time in an office environment is when someone has to wait for a signature before proceeding with a project or activity because of staggered work times or summer hours.

Waste of transportation or movement. This involves unnecessary movement of a product or process through a system. One of Thornton’s clients, for example, had an employee who walked 14 kilometers a day chasing paper. Reducing this type of waste often requires taking a look at the layout of a manufacturing or office environment.

Waste of overservicing. This occurs when a process involves an activity that the customer does not perceive as valuable, for example, quality control at the end of a process. An alternative would be to put processes in place to prevent errors at every step.

Another type of overservicing happens when government bodies, like the Food and Drug Administration, require unnecessary documentation that does not add value in the eyes of the customer but is required as a cost of business.

Waste of motion. This differs from the waste of movement because it focuses on how people move around their actual workspaces. In an office where the occupant’s need to file is fairly constant, placing the filing cabinet two cubicles away results in much wasted motion.

Excerpted from the September 10, 2008, issue of U.S. 1.

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