Lean manufacturing is maximizing production with minimal waste.  It sounds simple enough, but many companies do not take the time to evaluate their processes to determine how they could be run more efficiently and this can severely impact the bottom line and cost the company hundreds to millions in dollars each year.

It’s not that companies don’t want to maximize productivity, it can be for several reasons including the following:

  • Management is unaware that there is a problem
  • Those who can make change are resistant to change
  • Management believes the processes are already the most efficient
  • Management does not revisit or re-evaluate fixed processes to ensure they remain efficient

Companies want to run efficiently because the more efficiently they run, the higher their profit margin, the happier their employees and customers are, and the more successful they become.  However, management and executives are not always aware of the minute details of every function within the company, only that  processes are being performed and production is consistent.

Here are a few steps companies can take to make processes leaner and more efficient:

  1. Document processes: The first way to determine whether processes are running as efficiently as possible is to closely review them and document them thoroughly.  Have employees outline how they perform regular tasks thoroughly enough that someone else could complete the task by following their instructions.  This will provide each step required and allow thorough analysis of the process.  The goal is to have every process documented to the extent that any other person could complete the task as it is written.
  2. Review processes: Once processes are documented, review each step to ensure it is executable by someone else.  If not, have the employee revisit and clarify any missing points.  Once clarified, start highlighting any steps that seem unnecessary or those which could be replaced by more efficient steps.  This is also a way to quantify processes by determining time and resources required to complete each task.  The goal of initial review is to find bottlenecks and unnecessary steps that can be eliminated in each process.
  3. Cut waste: Determine which steps are unnecessary and remove or replace with more efficient methods.  This can include authorizing employees a small dollar amount to approve for purchasing or defectives, rather than wait for their manager to review and approve or to authorize email approval versus signature approval.  The goal is to remove any unnecessary steps and replace with more efficient, logical steps.
  4. Streamline processes: In manufacturing, lean processes focuses on literally reducing the number of steps—footsteps—required to accomplish a task.  Documenting processes is a way to determine the “footsteps” within a process in order to maximize efficiency.  Once you have cut the waste from processes, they need to be re-written to reduce the number of steps and increase the output.  The goal is to maximize the efficiency of each process to result in maximum output with minimum waste.
  5. Review & improve processes: What works best at one point in time is not what works best forever.  It is vital to revisit each processes periodically, quantify the work versus output and determine whether a more efficient process could be put in its place. Set goals and benchmarks so you have quantified points to reach and a method to evaluate qualitative processes.  The goal is to ensure your processes are running as efficiently as expected and to determine whether further review is necessary to increase productivity and efficiency from each process.

Employees can become nervous when asked to document how they do their jobs.  They often feel as if this is a way to get rid of them and have an instruction manual for their replacement to follow.  This is not always the case.  They are tasked with documenting their processes because they should be the expert at it.  A review of their processes is necessary to keep the company’s processes streamlined.

In some cases, it may be determined that some employees are no longer needed because their work can be absorbed into another employee’s processes.  While difficult, this can be beneficial for the company in cutting excess expenses and maximizing efficiency.

In a lean manufacturing company, employees should have enough work to do to make them a vital part of the company, however, they should also never drop below a point of necessity within the company to the point of their position not being needed.  Employees will be most functional when they have just enough work to do to keep them busy for their shift, but not too much work that would cause them to be careless in completing tasks too quickly to complete the tasks properly.

Lean manufacturing should not be a one-time action—it is ongoing for continual improvement.    Think of it as maintenance after weight loss.  If you make the effort to follow the rules and put in the hard work to lose weight and reach your goal, you need to continue a healthy lifestyle to maintain your hard-earned body.  However, if you go back to your old habits, your hard work will be lost and you will end up right where you started.

However, once the initial stages are completed, with regular maintenance, you will be able to maximize your efficiency with regular evaluations which will result in smooth, efficient processes with minimal waste and maximum productivity and profit.