What is Lean Manufacturing?

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Lean Method and Six Sigma: What Is The Difference and Which Do You Need?

Lean Manufacturing concepts eliminate wasteful practices while delivering increased value to the customer, but what does that really mean? We spoke with Rick Bohan, training consultant for ERC, about what lean manufacturing is and the importance of it.

Lean manufacturing can be described differently depending on who you ask. It is a concept understood by many yet lacks an indisputable description. Below discusses a few of the different ways lean manufacturing is described.

Wikipedia: “Lean manufacturing or lean production, often simply "lean," is a systematic method for the elimination of waste ("Muda") within a manufacturing process. Lean also takes into account waste created through overburden ("Muri") and waste created through unevenness in workloads ("Mura").”

Although the definition and description of the concept is pretty on-target, the terms, “muda,” “muri,” and “mura,” aren’t in many people’s every day vocabulary.

The Lean Enterprise Institute: “The core idea is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources. A lean organization understands customer value and focuses its key processes to continuously increase it. The ultimate goal is to provide perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process that has zero waste.”

This one is getting more there. However, isn’t what you’re working to do every day, right now, to maximize customer value while minimizing waste? This begs the question, how is lean manufacturing different than what I’m already doing?

A guy named Tony that contributed to ToughNickel:

“[Lean is]…satisfying your customers consistently through producing what they want, when they want it, by pulling it from the value stream using the minimum amount of resources through respecting and involving all of your employees in a continual process of improvement.”

This definition from “Tony” is getting warmer but there’s a lot of “what they want, when they want it,” “pulling from the value stream,” “minimum resources,” “involving all employees,” and “continual improvement.”

Bohan says it’s hard to give a nice, neat definition of lean manufacturing without giving at least a bit of background. 

“Imagine the simplest of manufacturing systems: one raw material provided by one supplier and turned into one product in one operation that is sent to one customer.”   

There are so many possibilities that could go wrong, even with a simple manufacturing process. Some examples of the process going awry include:

  • Supplier sends the wrong items
  • There is a late shipment
  • The operator doesn’t follow the operating procedures
  • Finished goods become damaged or obsolete
  • Finished goods can't be located

“As we add suppliers, raw materials, products, operations, and customers, it just gets more involved and more complicated,” says Bohan. “There are just more chances for variability in the process.”

When the process has inconsistencies, it adds to the cost.

“It costs money in the form of overtime, expedited shipping, lost product and material, and warranty claims among others. It costs customer satisfaction with the potential loss of sales. It costs employee satisfaction with the potential for high absenteeism, high turnover, and lower safety,” says Bohan.

But he makes an interesting point. What if we were able to reduce the amount of process variability, and maybe even eliminate it altogether in some instances? What would the process look like then?

Process Step

What if we eliminated variability?

Supplier

Always send the right material that meets our specs, to the right place at the right time.

Raw Material Inventory

We always have the right amount of exactly what we need right at hand.

Make It

We always make the right amount of the right products and it meets specs…all the time.

Finished Goods Inventory

We always have the right amount of the right product right at hand.

Shipping

We always ship the right amount of the right product to the right place at the right time. The product we ship always meets the customers’ specs.

According to Bohan’s definition, lean manufacturing can be explained as:

"The continual reduction of process variation so that information and material flows smoothly, consistently, and quickly from supplier to customer.”

Bohan says the very term "lean" is somewhat of a contradiction. It prompts discussions about removing waste, cutting costs, and improving efficiency. There is an element of all of these things in a lean manufacturing practice, but lean manufacturing principles and tools are actually all about building capabilities and competencies. It’s all about increasing capacity and creating the ability to do things the organization couldn't do in the past. Lean manufacturing achieves this by simplifying processes so that they consistently provide value to the customer.  

Lean manufacturing accomplishes this with tools and methods that, when effectively implemented, provide a smooth, consistent flow of materials and information through the process.

ERC provides multiple Lean training courses for companies across the nation.

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