Industry Article

5-Point Guide To Set Up A Lean Production System

The Lean process uses a method of implementation focusing only on actions providing value to customers. The following five steps break down the process into discrete modules when introducing efficiency to production.

Lean production is a streamlined and efficient manufacturing process that minimizes waste, and as control engineers, we lean heavily toward using technology to achieve this objective. However, Toyota learned that improper application of tech — or using technology for its own sake — increased waste, negatively impacting operating performance.

The Lean process uses a structured method of implementation focusing only on those actions providing value to customers; adherence to this structure ensures technology choices form part of the solution, not add to the problem. The following five steps break down a complex change management process into discrete modules that assist with focus and thought clarity when introducing efficiency to production.


Figure 1. 5 Main lean manufacturing principles. Image used courtesy of LimbleCMMS 


Step 1: Identify the Value Your Business Provides to Customers

The first step requires an organization to put itself into the client's shoes and identify the value they seek through buying your product or service. This analysis must be a joint exercise involving a broad selection of your employees and managers. What problem does the client need to solve using your product, how much do they wish to pay, and when do they need it?

This information provides a foundation for analyzing your organization and the operating efficiency. Your role, and that of your business, is to provide this value to the customer at an optimal price while driving out unnecessary costs and removing waste from your processes. This way you ensure you maximize your profits.


Step 2: Identify the Path That Value Takes to the Customer

Having identified the value you deliver, you must analyze your operation to understand what departments, processes, tasks, and actions directly or indirectly add value to the product. 

Lean practitioners call this step mapping the value stream, which you begin by charting the end-to-end process your business currently follows to deliver a finished product to your customer, starting with raw material input from suppliers and finishing with delivery to the customer premises. 

Capture each step, including administrative processes, approvals, tests, and inspections. Don't forget support functions. If you're paying someone to do something, capture their input.


Figure 2. Value stream map. Image used courtesy of GoLeanSixSigma 


Having graphically captured your current state, you can remodel the value stream into your future state. Look at each step in the process and question its value. Direct tasks may be a step in the assembly process, and indirect ones might be a scheduling or quality team. 

The indirect tasks can take some thinking. Although the customer cannot see your scheduling or quality teams or wish to pay for them, on-time and defect-free product delivery enhances customer value. Consider any tasks, departments, or processes that do not add or enhance value to the customer as waste for removal.


Step 3: Smooth Value Delivery and Remove Bottlenecks

When lean practitioners speak of flow, they refer to the smooth, efficient, optimized flow of value through an organization. This step identifies any bottlenecks, flow reversals, queuing, or delays and then works actively to resolve them.



Figure 3. Before and after aligning the path of value delivery. Image used courtesy of Lean Six Sigma Definition 


Approval processes, work-in-progress queues, and machine setup times are common bottlenecks. If you can't remove them entirely, aim to simplify or minimize their impact. Don't forget to consider routing through your facility by tracking a product through all stages of production. 

If the path is tortuous, involves frequent idle time, or requires multiple handling, consider rerouting the flow to suit product tasks rather than functional departments. Reducing travel distances and repeated handling adds immeasurably to efficiency while reducing possible ergonomic and safety issues.


Step 4: Produce Products to Suit Demand

In the world of lean, producing products to create a buffer stock is wasteful overproduction. Instead, production should work on customer demand, known as just-in-time, rather than marketing forecasts which are just-in-case. This important lean principle — called a pull system — ensures you don't run into financial problems by spending on production, extensive work-in-progress, and storage without receiving revenue.

Important aspects of a pull system include signals to ensure work only moves to the next production stage when that team is ready for it. After that, a control system is developed to track work in progress and limit the time a single item can spend transiting the system. The clarity gained through these measures rapidly highlights bottlenecks or problem areas.

When team members are only required to work on one task before drawing another, resource waste reduces, you can scale teams to suit demand, productivity improves, and flow becomes more efficient. Experience has shown that working with a pull system delivers work items considerably faster and more efficiently than historical methods.


Step 5: Pursue Continual Improvement

Lean production is not a "fire and forget" philosophy: it requires instilling a cultural shift into your teams to actively and repeatedly seek to identify waste, enhance processes, and add value. Neither is lean a top-down strategic initiative; instead, it requires empowering workers and giving them the responsibility to own their tasks and perform independently.


Figure 4. The method of continuous process improvement. Image used courtesy of GoLeanSixSigma 


The Deming cycle, known to many as the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) model, emphasizes continuous improvement in process management. Lean practitioners utilize the PDCA model to seek waste for removal in a never-ending cycle. As the last step in the cycle, the Act category ensures all stakeholders understand the outcome of the last implemented change while recommending the next issue for resolution, creating continuous improvement.  


Parting Thoughts

The five steps to implement lean production provide a useful granularity and structure to what would otherwise be a confusing change process. Viewing your organization and its products through a client lens helps to focus only on those core activities your customer values. The bureaucracy and controls, the interminable review and approvals processes, all become exposed for the waste they are. 

The key is to involve your entire team, start small and empower your workers, giving them responsibility for continuous improvement. At a time when businesses are struggling for competitive advantage, lean production is a proven tool to streamline production, produce efficient operations, reduce operating costs, and delight customers.