By Paul Hogendoorn
People tend to fall into one of two camps when the topic of Lean manufacturing comes up. One camp gets really excited and can’t hear enough about it – or say enough about it. The other camp has heard all they want to hear and can’t bear to hear another word. Which camp do you fall into?
I must admit that up until recently, I fell into the latter. It seemed to me that people (most notably consultants and industry observers) started talking enthusiastically about Lean right around the time the majority of manufacturing companies had completed their ISO or QS certification processes. An entire service industry that was created to assist us with those initiatives now needed something else to convince us to do, and Lean was the next new thing.
My interest in the topic picked up a bit when I started hearing from actual manufacturing companies that were beginning to realize real and measurable benefits by implementing Lean thinking and Lean practices in their factories. But then my interest waned again when I was exposed first-hand to other companies that claimed to be going Lean when in reality it was just their purchasing departments’ excuse to get mean. To some, Lean only means working relentlessly to drive out cost. Give this unqualified mandate to a purchasing agent and you know what that means – there’s only one way to win that company’s business and that is by being the lowest cost provider, regardless of what other value you bring to the relationship, be it innovation, service and support, convenience or even quality. Although all those other things were said to be valued, they only became issues for real consideration after the vendor was selected and the primary selection criteria was price.
Still, despite these experiences, I knew I had to have enough knowledge on the topic to be sure that my company could realize any and all potential benefits that Lean might be able to offer.
The two best simple statements that I have heard describe Lean thinking are “delighting the customer, eliminating waste” and “a systematic approach to common sense.”
One last bastion of skepticism remained. Every convincing testimony that I heard from a Lean convert came from a company that had the luxury of supplying a year’s worth of similar products to a small handful of customers. These company leaders had no sales and marketing force or responsibility, or no R&D department or new product development responsibility. In other words, they were Tier 1 suppliers to the automotive industry and their only responsibility is to manufacture the same products for a very small list of customers. For them, Lean means a continuous focus on reducing the production cost and increasing the product quality. What about companies that have to replenish the order books every single month, or companies that have to continuously develop something different and better just to survive? Lean does not seem as natural a fit for “high mix, low volume” manufacturers, or “design and build” manufacturers, or custom fabrication manufacturers. All of these descriptions could be used to describe my company, where nearly 80 per cent of each month’s sales have to be found, pursued and won every single month.
The two statements that I mentioned earlier hold the key for me. The first half of the “delighting the customer, eliminating waste” statement speaks to one of my company’s core values: do whatever we have to do to make the customer happy, be it superior service, product innovation, holding inventory, or simply rolling up our sleeves and connecting ourselves as directly as possible to help them achieve their objectives.
I soon realized that the second part of that statement was an area where we could make significant improvements, though not necessarily in the same ways as a Tier 1 manufacturer would. For us, eliminating waste could take many different forms, including eliminating mistakes, eliminating wasted engineering time and eliminating unnecessary administration delays. A mistake caught in the design stage would save countless hours in the production stage, or significant costs and manpower compared to if it was not caught until the installation stage. Our engineering department is our company’s most valuable (and expensive) resource, so by making sure we stay focused on connecting its activity as directly as possible to our actual and target customers’ requirements would eliminate wasted engineering time and significantly improve that critical department’s output (both in terms of quantity and quality of work). It also became apparent that reducing the time it took for our sales team to respond to quotation requests or our administration team to process customer purchase orders would result in a dramatically shortened sales inquiry to invoice period – and this can only be a positive for both us and the customer.
Although most of us would claim to rely on common sense, we typically only invoke that thinking process when actually confronted with a problem that needs to be solved. Thinking of Lean as a means to continuously and systematically encourage common sense thinking every day, and in every facet of the business, is a very compelling and intriguing thought. And that is the thought that finally pushed me over the edge and led to my conversion.
Perhaps next month I’ll offer further insights into my own Lean journey and offer an update of our company’s progress. I’m sure some will be excited to read about every new idea and thought in detail; others won’t be interested enough to read past the first paragraph. Either way, I understand.
Paul Hogendoorn is president of OES, Inc. and chair of the London Region Manufacturing Council (LRMC). You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the LRMC, visit www.manufacturinglondon.com.