To most people in the business world, the phrase “Lean Principles” brings an image of a manufacturing plant that has waste reduction at its core. Historically, this would be true. Lean principles were derived from the famous Toyota Production System, or TPS, which was developed in the late 1940s by two gentlemen called Taiichi Ohno and Eiji Toyoda at the Toyota manufacturing plants in Japan.
Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, came up with the most primitive form of lean manufacturing with what came to be known as ‘just-in-time production.' Central to his philosophy was the urge to direct maximum efforts towards producing what the customers needed by limiting the extent of mass production. He put the first ‘pull-system’ in place. The pull-system meant quite literally what you think- to replenish products that were already “pulled” (or, bought) by the customer. In an industry where manufacturers like Ford, with their Model-T, were pushing their cars onto the customers, the concept of ‘pulling’ was a totally alien one. Sakichi, however, was working under a different environment where space, labor, and other resources were a major constraint. It was critical to him that he made the most economical use of the resources he had.
With time, newer concepts like ‘Jidoka’ (Japanese for autonomation), ‘Kai-zen’ (Japanese for continuous improvement), and ‘Heijunka’ (Japanese for load-levelling) were added and the Toyota Production System or Lean Manufacturing as we know it came into being and took the auto-industry by rage. Toyota, by focusing on waste elimination and implementing lean principles, was able to provide excellent quality vehicles at extremely competitive pricing and the customers loved it. So much so that, other manufacturers visited Toyota plants to learn from them and go ‘lean’ in their operations, colleges started teaching lean philosophies in their curriculum.
If you had asked anyone ten years ago, “What is the future of lean manufacturing?” they would have told you how, after making its way into developing economies, developed nations would also implement them and that it would be the only way the manufacturing industry would operate. Today, however, lean principles have made headway into industries that no one would have thought of. Lean is no longer just a tool for making manufacturing processes more efficient and customer oriented. Lean principles are used in any and every business process more efficient. This was startling to me initially because I could not see how that concept would diffuse into other business processes. However, as I revisited the principles and gathered a greater understanding of what “going Lean” means, I saw its application everywhere.
Going lean, fundamentally, means utilizing one’s resources to the maximum potential. Any process, inherently, has wastes and inefficiencies built into it. Going lean involves looking at those processes and analyzing what steps are value-add and what are not. Going a step further, it means taking a bird’s eye view and thinking outside the box. If a step is a value-add, Lean asks if you can make it more efficient; if it is not, Lean asks how you can redesign the process so that that particular step is eliminated. And you can do this with any process.
I learned this first hand when I attended a Lean seminar organized for conducting animal research. The research industry has been the latest adopter of lean philosophy and is seeing the benefits of it. I know what you are thinking - why does a research industry need to be lean? Its primary focus is to conduct research and invent new drugs based on the results. Sitting at that seminar, I was thinking the same. An hour into it, though, my perception was completely different.
The daily operation of a research facility has so many moving pieces. The cages of animals need to be monitored and maintained to ensure that the conditions are as per the requirement of the researcher. What this means is the attendant has to go through hundreds or even thousands of cages, check parameters like diet and temperature, and make changes where required. A simple Kanban (Japanese for label, a Lean concept) system makes this tedious task easier for the attendant who tracks it. Cages are the end result of all the efforts. Imagine the complexity in supplies if each cage had to have a specific kind of bedding, water, food. Maintaining the warehouse using visual codes and organizing the storage place using 5S techniques saves the employees time to look for the right item. It also enables them to realize that a particular item is running out of stock quickly and that a new order needs to be placed.
In conclusion, Lean Philosophy, to me, simply means making small changes in increment and always. It is a thinking shift that enables an individual to look for opportunities to improve his or her work area. It also means putting a system in place that is logical and reflective of the task to be done; and by system I mean something as simple as labels on the cage. Lean principles make a process more robust and not man-dependent. So, next time, look at your workplace and see where you can go ‘lean’ yourself.
If you are having troubles finding that, reach out to us and see how we can help you go ‘Lean’.
Rachit Shah serves as VP of Operations of Spartan Consulting. He has extensive work experience in the automotive industry where he worked with numerous new product development projects with the biggest auto-manufacturer in India.