What are the most important principles of lean manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing is nothing new, but it remains an important philosophy for manufacturers seeking to grow and effectively contend in a competitive, global environment. Essentially, it provides you with the tools to successfully identify and eliminate waste within your operation.

Waste comes in numerous forms, from physical waste (such as components and packaging), to metaphysical waste (such as time and effort expended). In whatever shape it occurs, waste has a detrimental impact on your output, efficiency and bottom line.

Through implementing lean manufacturing, you can focus only on what adds value to your operation, thereby enabling you to reach your business goals. In this post, we will outline the most important principles of lean manufacturing and explore how these can benefit your organisation.

Lean manufacturing and Toyota

Lean manufacturing is generally associated with the Toyota Production System (TPS), which is "steeped in the philosophy of 'the complete elimination of all waste' imbuing all aspects of production in pursuit of the most efficient methods".

TPS is based on two concepts: "The first is called 'jidoka' (which can be loosely translated as 'automation with a human touch'), which means that when a problem occurs, the equipment stops immediately, preventing defective products from being produced. The second is the concept of 'Just-in-Time', in which each process produces only what is needed by the next process in a continuous flow."

By applying these concepts, Toyota has been able to successfully manufacture high-quality vehicles on a consistent basis, and to their customers' requirements. In fact, Toyota is the world's largest car manufacturer – so it's hard to argue with their approach!

What does waste look like?

Toyota identifies seven different types of waste or "muda" ("futility", "uselessness" or "wastefulness" in Japanese). These were originally coined by Toyota's late chief engineer, Taiichi Ohno, and are (with examples):

  1. Transport – moving products unnecessarily
  2. Inventory – unwanted components etc.
  3. Motion – unnecessary movement of people or equipment
  4. Waiting – superfluous downtime
  5. Overproduction – manufacturing more product than is required
  6. Over processing – using complex tools where simpler ones would be sufficient
  7. Defects – spending time resolving preventable issues

By focusing your attention on each of these areas - all of which are non-value adding - and working out where improvements can be made, you can gradually decrease the amount of waste generated by your organisation. There are a number of tools that enable this - for example, Six Sigma, which focuses on reducing errors, and 5S, which is concerned with "continuous improvement".

The role of culture in lean manufacturing  

While lean manufacturing derives from TPS, the term "lean" was actually coined by John Krafcik in his 1988 article, "Triumph of the Lean Production System", which remains relevant today.

Writing on his blog, "lean healthcare" consultant Mark Graban says: "I recommend [Krafcik's article] to lean practitioners and leaders today, not just as a historical artefact, but because its key points are still valid and relevant. What makes a 'lean production system?' It’s not the tools; it's the management style and the culture. That was true in 1988 and it's true today.

"[Krafcik] didn't write about tools like 5S, kanban systems, or heijunka boxes. He wrote primarily about management, leadership, and culture."

This is an incredibly important point to make. There is a host of resources out there, to help you become a "lean" organisation - but, with the best will in the world, you won't succeed in your endeavour without engaging with this philosophy on a human level; without making sure that your entire team is on board and understands the importance of what you're doing.

That's why it's helpful to understand lean manufacturing as a philosophy - it's a holistic way of thinking and working that should inform every element of your manufacturing process. It's crucial to adopt the right mindset before rolling out the practical changes required. 

At its most basic level, lean manufacturing reduces waste within your manufacturing operation. As a consequence, you can increase your productivity, better serve the needs of your customers and grow your organisation, ready to compete in today's fast-changing and exciting environment. 

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Written by Neil Sharp

Neil has over 25 years’ experience in Electronics Manufacturing Services and Component Distribution. During his career, Neil has held a range of leadership positions in sales, marketing, and customer service. Neil is currently part of the ESCATEC Senior Management Team and is responsible for setting and delivering the overall Group Marketing strategy. Neil heads up the marketing department and is responsible for both the strategy and the implementation of innovative marketing campaigns designed to deliver high quality content to those seeking outsourcing solutions.