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Posted on : Thursday 2nd July 2020 02:26 PM

Lean Manufacturing and the Race Towards Efficiency

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Efficiency is critical in most business operations and, especially, manufacturing. Like judges in a footrace, consumers usually only care about the result of a production “run”—the product itself. They don’t want to know how many working hours it took to assemble it; they could care less about how long it takes to move components across the factory floor. Their only interest is getting the product they want at an appropriate price point and within a reasonable time frame.


Lean manufacturing is the industry’s equivalent to a runner optimizing his form. Toyota process guru Shigeo Shingo at the start created the philosophy as a means of putting a stop to the costs posed by human error and inefficiency.  As business researcher and author Michael Schrage points out in an article for Harvard Business Review, Shingo’s ideas about lean manufacturing hung heavily on his attention to detail. Shrage writes, “Shingo looked for the simplest, cheapest, and surest way to eliminate foreseeable process errors. To make sure an assembler uses three screws, for example, package the screws in groups of three. Obvious? Perhaps. But “obvious” is commonly an underutilized and underappreciated asset.”


Let’s consider a real-world example.


Some years ago, I had the offer to tour a Panasonic refrigerator factory that had made “lean” thinking a central focus of its operations for over a decade. The work showed; that operation was one of the most efficient I had seen in my time working in the industry.


Here’s how it worked — in the place of maintain a special line for each variety of refrigerator, Panasonic created a manufacturing process that facilitated mix-model production on a single conveyor. This approach might not have worked if each product had to be painstakingly crafted according to model; although, Panasonic could maintain a single-stream process because they had developed a series of processes that granted for mix model production. One of them is the dies used stamp out frames and doors were designed in order to be exchanged in a lot less than thirty seconds, in the place of the hours the same task would have demanded in a more traditional manufacturing environment. Each of the dies weighed tens of thousands of pounds and were most likely challenging to integrate into the manufacturing operation, but having them boosted operational flexibility for the manufacturer.


The benefits of lean manufacturing are easy-to-use. Manufacturers can save money during production, make better use of their workers’ time, and enhance their capacity. The research on the potential for financial gain from “lean” thinking is limited, but it does offer some positive findings. In 2008, analysts partnered with Boeing to assess how lean manufacturing affected the company’s productivity on select projects. They found that lean initiatives contributed to a 28 percent decrease in labor cost, 60 percent of anomaly-caused time losses, 45 percent reduction in cycle time, and a 24 percent reduction in non-conformances. While these statistics are from a limited sample pool and don’t stand as hard-and-fast benchmarks, they do indicate a potential for savings and gains.



Before manufacturers can grow to be “lean,” they need to build up a better sense of what their customers value. Mainly, this requires some research into industry-established price points, expected quality, and typical turnaround times. Doing so will establish a few of the parameters for the company to use to develop productivity goals.


Value Stream

After the manufacturer has established their value parameters, they need to address the production process itself and identify any aspects that neglect to create value. Rooting out these time-wasting steps will both allow for greater efficiency and provide the manufacturer with a more comprehensive understanding of the production process.



All of the time-saving changes in the world won't make a difference if a production line is lacking flow. If one area of production is hyper-efficient and the next slow, the line will inevitably form a bottleneck at the point of conflict. It is very important that manufacturers implement time-saving changes making sure that the overall flow of production remains stable.



Developing pull requires manufacturers to improve their time to market benchmarks so that customers do not need to suffer through extensive waiting periods. Having good “pull” is not only a plus for the consumer, however — short turnarounds empower manufacturers to produce on an as-needed basis, and thereby save them from the expense of accumulating a preemptive stockpile of products.



There is never an endpoint for improvement. Being “lean” is a mindset, in place of a task; in this case, these thinkers strive for greater functionality even after they implement massive innovations. Perfection may not exist — but lean manufacturers will continue to reach for it.


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