Lean production has been causing a stir since the 1970s, when it introduced the principle of continuous improvement and narrowed the focus on maximum quality. More than 40 years on, is it still relevant?
In this interview, engineer Stefan Armbruster reveals the potential that has yet to be tapped and highlights the factors that are often undervalued in companies.
Stefan Armbruster is a market expert in lean production, a team leader in the Development department at item and the Product Manager responsible for the Lean Production Building Kit System.
Lean production is a concept that has been around for a long time. Why should a company put it into practice in the 21st century?
Because the principles have been proven to work. If a company can boost its efficiency by reducing waste, it will lower its costs and improve its processes. When it is put into practice, continuous improvement delivers a lot more than simply hoping or waiting for giant leaps in progress.
How much more lean can a production system get? Hasn’t all the potential been exhausted already?
Lean production isn’t a state that companies try to attain, it’s an attitude that guides businesses in the right direction through a series of steps. We’ve only just started tapping into the potential of lean production. After all, there are still big companies that have done virtually nothing to explore this approach. There is still a great deal that can be achieved in these cases.
“Lean production isn’t a state that companies try to attain, it’s an attitude.”
The more progress a company makes with lean production, the smaller the steps actually have to get. However, even Toyota – the company that first developed the lean concept – would never claim that it has eliminated all waste. If you decide you’re totally satisfied with what you’ve achieved, you stop getting better. After all, no product development team would ever say: “That’s it, we couldn’t build a better car.”
Where in a company is the most waste generated?
We talk about the seven Mudas, or classic types of waste. Overproduction is seen as the worst as it incorporates most of the others. Recent research has also identified two more Mudas – squandering talent and inadequate ergonomics.
How is inadequate ergonomics a type of waste?
People are very different in terms of their size, strength, age and so on. If operators have to adapt to their work benches, they cannot perform to their full potential. However, ergonomic work benches adapt to their operators, which boosts productivity and lowers illness rates. A company can really benefit from actually utilising the full potential of its employees instead of wasting it. Employees also benefit because they are healthier and much more motivated. It’s a real win-win solution.
Don’t methods like that go against the lean principle if you need additional tools and aids?
Quite the opposite. Lean doesn’t mean stripping everything away, it means avoiding what is unnecessary. However, you need more of the things that make working practices more productive. Nobody would simply get rid of a metal press to save on electricity. Lean production building kit systems help personnel build precisely the equipment that will make them more productive, and build it on-site.
“Lean doesn’t mean stripping everything away, it means avoiding what is unnecessary.”
What aspect of lean production is most undervalued?
People. The skills and motivation of the workforce is the basis for any and every improvement. If a company doesn’t support its personnel so that they are motivated enough to look for improvements, then it has already failed to introduce the lean philosophy. You can’t compensate with pull, Kanban, Karakuri and other such systems. The way that errors are dealt with is often a good indicator of whether or not a company has been able to incorporate the lean philosophy into its HR culture. At Toyota, they really value errors because companies need them if they are going to learn and therefore be able to improve processes and products. They don’t hunt down the guilty parties, they look for better solutions instead.
Where are the most problems encountered when putting lean production into practice?
When it comes to work scheduling, personnel need a degree of freedom so that they can implement the improvements that are necessary. Very few employees will use their free time to build factory equipment for their employer. What’s more, personnel need to have appropriate training so that they can recognise the potential that lean production building kit systems offer them in their job. If those things are missing, employees lack motivation and expertise and a great many opportunities for improvement will be missed.
In terms of factory equipment, the requirements are clear: It needs to be as self-explanatory as possible, personnel should be able to adapt it quickly and easily and it has to be reliable. Equipment that doesn’t offer long-term stability is no real help at all.
“When it comes to work scheduling, personnel need a degree of freedom so that they can implement the improvements that are necessary.”
Isn’t it the job of employees to build factory equipment that lasts?
The problem is not with the employees. You should be able to expect a toolkit like a lean production building kit system to produce stable component fixings that can cope with strain over long-term use. If the fixings on a transport trolley need to be constantly retightened because of creep, that’s also a type of waste. Fixings and fasteners are only really lean when they hold firm under strain – without having to be retightened.
item offers its own Lean Production Building Kit System. Which components do you think are particularly important?
First and foremost, the roller conveyors. Before anything else, you need to look closely at the containers and their qualities. Many people don’t understand just how important it is to pick the right roller element for the goods that are being conveyed. That is particularly important when you want to put in place Karakuri applications for low-cost automation. Another key component is the preassembled Fastener. You simply take it out of its packaging and a few seconds later it’s fitted in place. The component that our customers use the most no longer has to be assembled from several individual parts. It might sound unimportant, but in practical terms it saves an unbelievable amount of time and stress! Only item offers a product like this, and it’s a good example of Kaizen in practice. The preassembled Fastener delivers a better result in less time. That’s exactly what lean production is all about.