Overcoming lean manufacturing challenges

In this book chapter, learn how to overcome lean manufacturing challenges and common obstacles to lean success.


Lean Manufacturing: Implementation Strategies that Work  

The road to a lean manufacturing implementation isn't always a smooth one. Forming a strong implementation strategy will make the journey easier. In this book chapter excerpt, learn how to overcome lean manufacturing challenges, and find out how to plan ahead to ensure lean manufacturing success.

Obstacles to Progress

Table of contents:
Addressing common lean manufacturing implementation myths
Overcoming lean manufacturing challenges

Before examining what can done to improve the thrust of implementation and more quickly gain the benefits across a broad scale of U.S. manufacturing, it is important to summarize the flaws that have served to hamper progress:

  1. The lack of an appropriate focus on a plant's key production equipment in setting the stage for an aggressive application of Lean across the entire operation.
  2. A general failure in the utilization of the Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering functions in the process.
  3. A growing trend away from a "just do it" mentality to establishing a proof-based comfort level before change of any kind is allowed.

After retiring, I was called on by various firms to assist in setting the foundation for a Waste Free Manufacturing environment. In every case, some very pronounced accomplishments were made. Work-in-process inventory levels were reduced as much as 90%. Productivity, in terms of the actual number of people required to perform the work, improved as much as 30%. Required floor space was reduced up to 50% and quality measurements, in the form of scrap, rework, and obsolescence, were lowered 50% and more. 

Under any form of evaluation these would have to be classified as phenomenal accomplishments, especially considering the change was made over a very short period of time. On the other hand, there was more than one occasion where completing implementation on a plant-wide basis fell short of the goal. Although it would have been easy to say there simply wasn't strong enough management support, that wasn't the case. Management was more than willing to see Lean become a success and to fully support it -- up to a point. That point, of course, was when Lean began to seriously distract from achieving other factory obligations, such as dealing with expenses and meeting customer demand.

There are those, including myself, who would like to see plant management much more driven as to the need for Lean and more willing to step forward in defense of the process. Still, we have to face reality. In the vast majority of cases, this isn't something that can be depended on to keep a Lean initiative at the forefront of priorities. Consider the case of Avery Manufacturing (Case 1-1):

Case 1-1 Avery Manufacturing

Avery Manufacturing, which has been in business for well over two decades, produces plastic extruded components for the automotive industry. For much of its existence, it enjoyed steady growth and improved market share. But as competitive pressures grew, it slowly began to lose business to overseas competition. As a result, profits and share of market began to spiral. After much deliberation, management decided there was a need to pursue a Lean Manufacturing initiative. After communicating to employees, Avery hired the services of a well-respected consulting firm. As a first step, an area of the factory was selected as a pilot project. A special event was conducted involving a number of key factory personnel, including the plant manager and various members of his staff.

The event went extremely well. Participants received training in the basic tools and techniques. As is usually the case, the chosen pilot area was totally revised. Floor space was reduced, required work-in-process inventory levels were lowered, direct labor was redistributed, and manpower adjustments were made. Unneeded items consisting of inventory, old and infrequently used equipment, and such were removed from the area and stored in a special zone until a decision could be made as to disposition. In addition, work stations were redesigned with input from the operators; numerous visual controls were installed.

Afterwards, enthusiasm ran high. Work began on spreading the change plant wide. Twenty-four months later, however, one could find little evidence of a successful turnaround. Factory inventory levels remained as high as ever and slippage was evident in the selected pilot area, especially regarding work-place organization. Although a substantial number of smaller in-house events were conducted after the pilot, focus had been placed on making small improvements within the confines of larger production departments, which tended to be suffocated by the batch environment going on around them. As added competitive pressures grew, more and more effort was shifted from implementing Lean to addressing and resolving immediate production issues (firefighting). The strong enthusiasm on the front end slowly began to ebb and largely turned to skepticism on the part of employees. They began to view Lean as just another program, among the many that had started and died over the years.

This case is, for the most part, a fictional account. But it points to what's transpiring in much of U.S. industry. Initial efforts are generally impressive and filled with unique accomplishments and high enthusiasm. Following this, however, things frequently begin to slow, principally as a result of not fully understanding what to attack first, second, and so on (see Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1 How to Go About the Job

  • Establish clear levels of accomplishment: Level I through Level IV*
  • Determine the tools needed: Poke-Yoke, TPM, SMED, etc.
  • Train and communicate
  • Enlist the workforce

*Details spelled out in Chapter Two, Figure 2.2

To emphasize what I'm driving at, I once worked with a well-known firm where, six months after a highly successful event, I returned for a follow-up review. I was astonished to see that outside of some rather insignificant changes on the factory floor, little progress had been made. In addition, the pilot area, which was designed to be a showcase for how the process should both look and feel, had shifted back to a push system of production, after initially being targeted as the first pull area of the factory.

Upon further investigation, it became apparent that the objectives established for the change effort had in no way been met. In fact, no machine in the factory had a setup time less than twenty minutes in duration and some machines took hours to change over. On two projects where team members had placed some effort, the post-pilot goals for setup reduction were far from achieved and no work whatsoever had been applied to error-proofing equipment. Even more disappointing, I learned in a follow-up meeting with plant management that they were pleased with the work accomplished. They noted that although the goals hadn't been fully achieved (a vast understatement), the team had improved setup on two pieces of equipment.

Much of their response was an effort to justify where progress stood, in order not be seen as lacking in their commitment. But as politely as I could under the circumstances, I cautioned them that the degree to which they expressed satisfied or disappointment said a lot about where they ultimately intended to take the process.

The silence was almost deafening as I told them that I didn't think Lean was really all that important to them. The plant manager, in particular, was visibly upset and asked me to provide the reasons I felt that way. In response, I proceeded to give each of them a copy of the participant feedback form I have team members complete on a follow-up visit. Among the findings:

  1. No meetings had been conducted by management to check on how things were going or to redirect the activities of the team as needed, in achieving their stated objectives.
  2. Collectively less than eighteen hours over a six-month period had been made available for team members to work on stated objectives.
  3. Although a majority of the team believed management thought Lean was important, all of them noted that "other things" came first, including:
    • Meeting production schedules
    • Meeting forecasted operating expenses
    • Providing support to higher priority or more important plant and corporative objectives

I noted that anything more than single minute changeover fell short of World-Class. It wasn't insignificant to the decision making process for issues such as adding business, increasing line rates, etc. I further reminded them that other pressing matters and higher priority objectives will always be there, in one form or another. In order to move a Lean initiative forward at a reasonable level of speed, there has to be a commitment to dedicate some number of resources to the process on a full-time basis, or at minimum some pre-determined period of time.

I should note that management was in no way disinterested or thought that Lean was less important than other things. They were simply typical manufacturing managers, working under typical conditions, which strongly influenced an operating mentality that said:

  • "Things are always going to get in the way, so never overstate an objective. If anything, strive for a goal that's something less than possible and offer a pat on the back for any improvements made."
  • "The most important thing is to keep banging out parts and components, even if it takes an abundance of downtime, scrap, and rework -- and if and when inventory becomes an issue, we'll take our limps and move on."

The problem many manufacturing managers have is that they simply refuse to get out of the way of progress. They do not believe machines can run without breaking down and without producing scrap and rework. They do not believe setup can be reduced to near zero and that errors inherent to specific pieces of equipment and processing can be entirely eliminated. What they do believe, however, is there's no magic that would serve to make manufacturing anything other than a day-to-day chaotic exercise. Otherwise, they'd be pushing the hardest for the change and, in most cases, would be staying after hours and weekends to make it happen.

Admittedly, implementing Lean puts a strain on expenses, drains needed resources, creates unneeded downtime, and for the most part has no immediate impact on the big picture. But place the initial thrust on effectively improving a plant's key production equipment, which for years has served as the one thing that poses the greatest stumbling block to achieving Lean's stated objective, and attitudes will shift dramatically.

The Japanese and more specifically a number of ex- Toyota managers were the first to bring the general philosophy of the Toyota Production System to U.S. shores. The thing they never seemed to clarify, however, was precisely what should come first, second, and so forth, in order to move the process across the entire factory. There could have been many reasons for this, including the possibility they simply didn't look at it in those terms. The skeptic, of course, would say it wasn't in their best interest to show the United States how to gain parity. I lean toward the theory that they didn't view the process in terms of speed of implementation, but rather in making certain that participants understood how the various tools and techniques were intended to work.

Anyone who knows anything about Lean Manufacturing has a special admiration for Toyota and what it accomplished. They have served as the basic role model for Lean initiatives in the United States. But suppose Toyota was placed in the position of having to do it again. Would they take the same basic steps we're using to implement the process?

I posed that question to a number of people who were implementing Lean in various organizations; they generally had to think about it a bit because it was something they had never considered. The majority came to the conclusion that Toyota would follow the same path we are currently using. Those who didn't respond in like fashion admitted they really didn't know for certain. No one was convinced Toyota would go about it in an entirely different manner.

I believe if Toyota had to do it again, they would first gear their equipment to support Lean, through a highly professional application of SMED (Single Minute Exchange of Dies) and Poke-Yoke (a Japanese term related to mistake proofing equipment). In fact, Toyota applied much more attention to their equipment than has come to be recognized -- not because they were striving to hide something from us, but because we did not pay close enough attention to what the recognized father of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, was trying to tell us.

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