The no-nonsense guide to Lean Manufacturing terms

Lean ManufacturingLean manufacturing principles and some of the tools that go with them can seem a bit daunting. All of the Japanese phrases, acronyms and occasionally bemusing maths often lead people to think that ‘lean’ might be great for large organisations but too much effort for what they do.

This is a real shame because it’s actually a lot more simple to understand and easier to implement than most people think.

In this blog post we have listed a number of lean terms that you have probably come across (and perhaps run away from) and what they really mean when you cut out all the nonsense. 

  • Mapping process - write down all the steps that happen when you do something.
  • Value stream mapping – from the above steps, work out what has to be done and adds value to the product (like building it), what has to be done but doesn’t add any value (like moving a product between production machines), and what is a complete waste of time and resources.
  • Reducing process waste - stop doing the stuff you don’t need to do.
  • 5S – keep your work place tidy and organised. If it’s like a teenager’s bedroom then you’re not going to be efficient.
  • PDCA - Four logical steps to help improve a process. Plan (what’s the problem and what’s causing it?) Do (fix it) Check (is it fixed?) Act (adjust things if you need to). Following these simple steps just makes sure you do everything you need in a logical order with some structure.
  • DMAIC – Similar to PDCA, but with a bit more data, which is good! Define (what’s the problem?), Measure (how much of a problem is it?), Analyse (what’s causing the problem?), Improve (implement the solution), Control (check and keeping it going).
  • Gap analysis – where are we now and where do we want to be? The difference between these two questions is your gap and then you can think about how you are going to bridge it.
  • Visual management - make it clear to all staff what’s going on. Colourful graphics on monitors or noticeboards are good so that opportunities to improve are clear to everyone.
  • Practical Problem Solving – 5Y or ‘5 whys’ is a good approach that stops you jumping to incorrect conclusions by asking why to every answer you give. Small children are very good at this.
  • Kanban – a simple way of making sure you don’t run out of parts in production.
  • Total Preventative Maintenance (TPM) - maintain your equipment so it doesn’t break down and become useless.
  • Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) - a number that tells you how much value you’re getting out of a piece of equipment. Warning, there is a bit of arithmetic here to calculate things but it’s worth it!
  • Line Balancing – this helps ensure you don’t have one person overloaded with work and the one next to them with almost nothing to do. Annoying for both parties and incredibly inefficient.
  • Just In Time (JIT) - don’t buy and make stuff until you need it.
  • PFMEA (Process Failure Mode Effect Analysis) – work out how a process might go wrong so you can stop it from happening before it does.
  • Poka Yoke – make it idiot proof. Think how you could make something go wrong then how you can stop it going wrong. It’s worth continuing to use the Japanese term though as it sounds funny and you’ll remember it.
  • Control plans – a checklist of what you’re going to do to check that everything is OK.

So there you go, lean manufacturing isn’t as scary as you thought after all and you’re probably doing a few of these already. But there are a lot of options and that in itself can be overwhelming so here’s a few ideas to really make it work for you:

  1. Keep it practical. You don’t have to do all of it. If you’re new to lean then an overview course might be worthwhile so you can pick your favourite tools and make a start. For me, visual management, 5Y and Poka Yoke are really easy to implement and have shown brilliant results, whilst others run their working lives with DMAIC. Pick one and have a go!
  2. Get everyone involved. In management speak, ‘embed it in your culture’. Lean isn’t all about your quality and production teams running special projects, it’s about helping everyone who is adding value to your product – which is usually the shop floor teams, and often they know best.
  3. Every little helps. Even the smallest of improvements add up and embracing all ideas helps encourage everyone to join in. Really big, obvious changes are actually quite rare.
  4. Continually look for improvements. Keep at it. You might not want to drive for the full ‘six sigma’ experience – 3.4 defects per million opportunities – which is near perfection, and your batch sizes and product variation might not even give you enough data to do this. But that variety will give you a lot of opportunities to improve, so stick at it. Those little changes might not look like much after a month or two, but could really make a difference after a year.
  5. Design the process right in the first place. ‘Design for manufacture’ and a robust ‘New Product Introduction’ process really is worth the effort as it can avoid the big, expensive mistakes. Lean is then great at refining things.

Written by Russell Poppe

Russell describes himself as a Manager, Engineer, manufacturer, teambuilder, organiser, strategist, and occasional content writer. Russell loves to help businesses thrive and grow in the best way that he can and has a wealth of experience in the engineering and manufacturing industry, particularly within electronics. Russell’s previous roles have encompassed general management, engineering, development, manufacturing, quality, and marketing, always with a strong focus on customer service.