Monday, February 13, 2012

Lean Manufacturing

Readings for this week focused mainly on lean manufacturing, specifically at Toyota's process and the implementation of various strategies at Starbucks. However, the article on Seattle's hospital was also interesting in that it illustrated the fact that lean manufacturing can be used in industries other than manufacturing and service.

I thought the Toyota case study was interesting because throughout my undergraduate studies, Toyota's manufacturing process has been a constant theme of successful lean manufacturing. It has been interesting that so few companies have been able to mimic its success, specifically other car manufacturers.

The authors mention four rules of Toyota's system that they identified over a four year study. The first is to "know how people work". This involves developing a system of rigid methods for workers so that the entire manufacturing process is the same. While the authors claim that this process encourages thought, experimentation, and individuality with workers, I wonder if that is true. If workers must do one repetitive step the same way every day, it seems as if it would limit the potential for experimentation. Unless, of course, the process is already perfect, which is what this step implies.

The second rule consists of understanding how people connect. This rule ensures a direct, unambiguous line of communication from one employee to another. Employees are instructed to report problems immediately, with help also coming immediately. This ensures that problems are not compounded and discovered later, when they are larger issues and the point of origin may be obscured. It goes against what many managers think in that they embolden employees to find their own solutions. However, I also find it difficult to see how it encourages individuality and experimentation if an employee is directed to call for help at the first sign of trouble.

The third rule deals with how the production line is constructed. Employees call for extra parts, and the request goes directly up the chain, with parts going straight back to the employee who requested it. Rather than extra parts, for example, going directly to the first open project or machine, they are delivered to a specific employee. Effectively, this makes every parts request an experiment as to whether it is necessary or not. If there is a more effective, efficient method or part that can be used, it will eventually be recognized and the supply chain will realize more value.

Finally, the fourth rule consists of how improvements are made. It specifies that each change must be made using the scientific method, and under the supervision of a teacher.

Lean manufacturing seems like a fairly basic, easy to understand theory. However, the lack of many companies to successfully adopt its methods is confusing. Starbucks has recently made good use of it, with the article detailing some examples and the increase of sales in some of the more successful locations.

Collins Bus Company also recently managed to use lean manufacturing principles to increase productivity by eliminating downtime for reloading barrels of undercoating. They were also able to ensure greater safety at their facility as a byproduct of the change to a reformulated version of the undercoating, decreasing the amount of errant spray.

I also read a brief article/announcement for a lean manufacturing workshop in Australia ( I thought this was interesting because it could provide good discussion material in class for Australia's imminent switch to using the carbon tax. The workshop focuses, presumably, on how to use "lean" to inspire "green". Using lean principles will not only drive great customer value enhancement and loyalty, but may also decrease the losses of a company by limiting their carbon footprint, and subsequent higher taxes.


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