Lean manufacturing is a collection of philosophies and proven practices that address issues common to every company in the world.  It was famously perfected by the Toyota Motor Corporation and is most well known for being applied in high volume assembly lines for motor vehicles and mass produced consumer goods. 

Rather than focussing on finding another five percent productivity (the muscle), Lean focuses on eliminating waste – all those things that get in the way of productive work (the fat).  That’s why foundational Lean concepts such as Jidoka, Muda Mura Muri, and the 7 Lean Wastes all focus on elimination of waste.  It’s also why Lean works for any process and any industry, not just manufacturing and not just high volume assembly lines, because waste is present in any organisation.

Lean also works in any organisation because re-discovering knowledge is a major form of waste.  Since American experts transferred the knowledge from the wartime Training Within Industry service at the end of World War 2, Lean practitioners have been using Standard Work to write down and refine what works, and what doesn’t.  Fast forward 70 years, and we have a set of proven practices that can eliminate the kind of wastes that are found in every company in the world.


What is Manufacturing?

Applying Lean principles in Australia requires adaptation, because our industries are not dominated by high volume assembly lines.  In fact, when I was leaving the automotive industry in Adelaide and returning to Queensland, the most common question from my colleagues was “What manufacturing?!”

Of course, there’s lots of great manufacturing and industry in Australia, but it’s dominated by flexible companies serving a large number of market segments and often customising solutions for each customer or working on a project-by-project basis.  Even those companies we consider “high volume” are much more flexible than comparably sized organisations in larger markets, and are often best categorised as “Batch Production”.  The greatest number of organisations in Australia are called “Job Shops”, and the challenges presented by this kind of work need to be understood in order to successfully apply the proven practices of Lean.


Batch Production Challenges

In Batch Production, a company may have a relatively high volume production line, but it is periodically reconfigured to produce a certain product or variant, before being reconfigured for the next product or variant.  The lost production time during changes can be large – the entire process stops and everybody waits while one machine is swapped over from on product to another.  Accurately forecasting customer demand is seen as paramount, and production schedules are designed and optimised around it.  Machine breakdowns, labour flexibility, and output rates are the focus of management attention.


Problems solved for Batch Production Companies

Setup Time Reduction is highly applicable to the challenges of Batch Production, but not just  for the reason of increasing productive time.  Instead, shorter changeovers allow more frequent changeovers, and this reduces the impact of forecasting accuracy. Other Lean tools like high levels of Line Balancing to achieve Takt Time is difficult. Line Balancing is difficult due to the variation between products, and in fact the entire strategy of Batch Production runs counter to Takt Time principles. 

The Lean tools of Autonomous Maintenance and “5S” housekeeping and organisation can be directed toward reducing machine breakdowns.  Standard Work can be used to enhance labour flexibility by increasing the number of people with the necessary skills, and Visual Management used to adapt the management metrics and underlying organisation to the current production configuration.  These tools work really well in Batch Production, but they need to be adapted from the common textbook examples based on assembly lines or mass production facilities.


Job Shops are Different

Compared to assembly lines and even Batch Production, Job Shops typically have higher variability in their workload from day to day and week to week.  They also have some machinery or processes which are not fully utilised every day of the week, but provide important capabilities such as the ability to process large parts or the ability to make just one of something for a customer.  Lastly, they have people with a wider range of skills which are able to move from process to process as required.


Problems Solved for Job Shops

Lean practices can definitely help Job Shops.  5S” housekeeping and organisation and “Setup Time Reduction” is aimed at making every workstation ready for work, even if it’s been idle for weeks.  This allows people to move from area to area and be effective – quickly.  Time spent walking back to a “home” station or storeroom to retrieve tools is reduced.  Using these Lean tools in this way is different to their use on assembly lines or in Batch Production, and again they need to be adapted from common textbook examples. “Kanban Systems” are used to control the amount of work and therefore lead time (as well restocking consumables like nuts and bolts, just like an assembly line).  Just in Time” principles are adjusted to account for the much higher variability experienced by Job Shops, and appropriate buffers are added at key points in order to ensure continuity of work.  The list goes on!


Where Should YOU Start?

What problem would you like solved?  If recurring quality issues, communication issues, lead time, total capacity, machine reliability or overall cost are on your mind, then there is a Lean practice which can help.  Contact us to discuss which practices to apply for best results.