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What Lean Manufacturing Can Teach Us--Part I

You've heard the term 'Lean Manufacturing' (or just 'Lean'), probably in business articles about large manufacturers.  But, you should not assume that "Lean" is just for major businesses.  And don't assume that you have to make major investments and hire consultants in order to benefit from it.  It has much to teach us that can make your shop more competitive and more profitable.

The term came into use in the 1990's. For those who don't know, Lean is a methodology for elimination of waste (or in Japanese, "muda") within a manufacturing process. "Waste" in Lean is far more than waste material. It includes anything which the customer is unwilling to pay for such as idle time, wasted effort, and unproductive work. Lean defines the following seven resources which are commonly wasted:

  1. Transport  (moving products that are not actually required to perform the processing)
  2.  Inventory (all goods whether parts, WIP or finished product not being processed)
  3.  Motion (people or equipment walking or moving more than required for processing)
  4.  Waiting (waiting for the next production step)
  5.  Overproduction (any product produced before it is required)
  6. Over Processing (activity resulting from poor tool or product design)
  7. Defects (the effort involved in inspecting for and fixing defects)    

In Lean, production is analyzed to come up with a 'Value Stream' for each product.  In EmbTrak, we focus a lot of thought and effort on 'Processes', which are similar to Value Streams. For example, when a sales order in EmbTrak is created, it includes the decoration processes required for the sales order. When the work orders are created we group garments by the processes (such as embroidery or heat transfer or screen printing) and create workflows which take the work orders step by step through the applicable process. This process will move from new art to art creation to art approval to coloring to customer approval to the actual decoration to finishing to packing and shipping. To complete the translation of the EmbTrak process approach into full Value Streams requires only separation of combined processes (such as sales order entry) into the appropriate Value Stream for each process.

Once Lean has defined Value Streams for each product, the major work remaining is to improve those streams by eliminating waste. This is a profoundly simple concept, but a powerful one.  "How can I eliminate muda in my [decoration] process?" Start with your largest process in sales volume and focus on it until you have plucked all the "low hanging fruit", then go to the next process, and so on.  When you've finished, start over and look for the smaller fruit.  And so on.

This is a simplified approach to Lean and much more could be written. However, it is a start. One other major point: true Lean organizations apply this concept not just to the factory floor, but to all support functions such as sales, marketing, HR, IT and accounting. In other words,  all staff functions should be viewed through the same prism as the production floor. For Lean companies, as you can imagine, improvement never stops.

To learn more about Lean, start with and YouTube and then read books such as Who's Counting? by Jerrold M. Soloman. You don't have to study much to get some great ideas and most of all, an entirely different way of thinking about your business.

We will come back to Lean in the days ahead.

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