Lean manufacturing to lean office

Lean manufacturing concepts have reached audiences far away from manufacturing. Lean concepts are now applied in services, hospitals, and military and even in software developments. Not so surprisingly these concepts have reached the office and now lean office is a hot topic.

Lean concepts basically evolve around identifying, stopping and removing wastes immediately (known as Jikoda) and Just In Time movement. Respect for the people is another very important value on which lean heavily relies on (For more on this check the earlier post “What is lean”). In very simple terms lean is about removing wastes from the system. This is certainly applicable in the context of an office.

Every office work involves wastes. But unlike in a manufacturing environment where we can physically identify wastes involved, it is harder to physically see the wastes in office. Yes, paper is wasted near photocopiers and tons of documentation happen and end in waste bin. But believe me these are only very small fraction of the total wastes you have in an office environment. So in changing office from a conventional to a lean office the hardest task may be identifying the wastes in the system. People need to look at their processors and operational models and start questioning and find new ways of doing things to offer better services to their internal and external customers.

Offices most of the times services providers. Some provide their services to internal customers when they are situated in a manufacturing facility. Your human resource department is a great example of this. Some on the other hand provide their services to external parties. Recruitment agencies are a good example for this. But in both of these cases the common factor is the customer. Every office has to serve a customer either internal or external. Every customer brings in a demand and the office needs to fulfill the demand just in time and in correct quantities. For an example if one of your factory workers requests a letter from your HR department they should provide the letter to employee with minimum possible lead time and with full accuracy.

Lean manufacturing is a topic discussed over and over again. So there are plenty of examples and how to guides available. But building a lean office can be challenging. It involves different set of people with different requirements and different backgrounds. They most of the times are not directly involved in the processes and are just service providers. Educating and making people believe that there are wastes in the system is the single most important step towards lean office.

Once people accept the fact that there are wastes in the system and they can be removed, people need to look at the places where the wastes do exist and must find ways of removing them from the system. Value stream mapping is a very valuable tool in this context. 5S activities can certainly help in unraveling the hidden wastes. Amount of emails received per day, number of unread emails in the inbox per person, number of people in the CC list are very important indicators in identifying the degree of lean application and its effect on your office.

There are certain differences in techniques involved in making your office lean than in manufacturing. But concepts do not differ from lean office to lean manufacturing. That is why gurus say “lean manufacturing techniques are unique to the implementation and concepts are global”

Lean manufacturing for apparel industry

I have written the possible application of lean manufacturing techniques in textile and apparel industries sometime back. With my recent experiences I thought of writing this article which will help my readers from apparel industry in particular in identifying and removing wastes from their systems.

Although sounds simple apparel industry has one of the very difficult manufacturing processes. It is a labor intensive, skill based industry. This industry contains lots of wastes and therefore opportunity for improvement.

Apparel manufacturers allover the world is pressed to deliver high quality garments at low costs in shorter lead times. Most of the apparel manufacturers are turning to lean manufacturing to achieve these objectives. Manufacturing an apparel item involves lots of processes. Order inquiries, sampling stages, order confirmation, purchasing of raw material, inspection and storing of raw material, creation of cut plans and markers, cutting, sewing and packing are among key milestones of the process.

If we define the value from the customer’s point of view only the cutting, sewing and packing operations adds value to the product (apart from the design and pre manufacturing processes). Lots of processes happen to achieve the efficiencies in cutting and sewing and even in packing stages. But the reality is when it is analyzed in the bigger picture the total effect is negative on the system. For an example hours of time and tons of money is spent in calculating and ordering correct economical order quantities of RM, inspecting incoming batches of material (especially fabric) and creation of efficient lay plans and tight markers to save fabric. But at the end of the day it is difficult to use the saved fabrics in other orders due to minor variations in colors and the fluctuation of the customer demands. So the material ends as write downs. Every effort and saving is lost. This is a classic example of not aligning the total process to fulfill the requirement of the customer. In lean context this is known as sub optimization.

I have an ideal lean apparel manufacturing unit in my mind. There only the required quantities of RM will be ordered by the procurement department based on the pre calculated consumptions. Then the incoming materials will be delivered in small frequent batches. Supplier ensures the quality of the material. When the goods reached manufacturing facility it is ready for manufacturing. Fabrics will not be cut in lots. Single ply cutters will cut all the panels for one garment at once. This operation will be synchronized to the TAKT time of the operation. Single ply cutting will prevent the requirement for color shade matching and complex lay planning handling. But it might consume little more fabric than if it is done in a conventional way. But the reduction of cost and lead time in inspection, lay planning, marker making and rejects will bring a net positive result to the process. Every manufacturing module will operate with a single piece flow. Output will be packed immediately and will be delivered to the customer in small batches. This will reduce the cost of the product, improve the quality and will deliver the goods to the customer fast. And more importantly this will simplify the process.

Although there can be problems in achieving the ideal state described here I am sure you can achieve a near ideal solution with the application of lean manufacturing principles in apparel industry. Lean will bring the flexibility, high quality, shorter lead times and lower costs which are very essential for anyone in this sensitive market. No need to say that these improvements will bring you the competitive advantage over the conventional manufacturers.

A lean idea for software developers

When I learned the principles of lean manufacturing and its application I realized the world is full of opportunities. There are plenty of opportunities if we are looking for improvement. I published a similar article earlier on application of lean concepts in software industry with an example from new yahoo mail. Today when I was working with my laptop I got this idea.

My computer hard drive capacity is almost full. It only has 10% of free space. It gets slower day by day. So I wanted to find out the exact reason why my hard drive is running out of space. I did a check on capacity utilization and found out considerable amount of my hard drive is consumed by programs installed including the operating system. So why programs takes this much of space? Most of the programs are loaded with much functionality. When we install the programs most of these components are getting installed without our knowledge. Why is it getting installed without our knowledge? Actually most of the programs come with the selection in installation process where people can select what they want to install. But most people do not install software every day and they are not experts on this either. So they want to be safe. They simply select all the sub components and proceed (if we put it in more lean way, they create an inventory just in case of there will be a problem). In fact most of the times we even do not know whether these features are available in the software we use every day. I haven’t touched most of the libraries available even in the MS Office. But they get installed (or we select them to install) and use up the capacity which is a limited resource in a computer.

If you go through my approach to find the root cause to the problem of running out of capacity in hard drive, you will see I have taken “5 WHY?” approach to get to the root cause of the problem. Although I haven’t asked why 5 times exactly as in text book lean approach it bought me to the root cause of the problem.

How we can stop people from installing unnecessary components and make them feel comfortable in not installing all in the first instance. My suggestion is first to not to give the user the trouble of selecting what they want (Unless if it is a real professional user) and then to install only the core components of the software in the first instance and then load the attached sub components on demand when users request it (In lean context this is creating a system which will stop problems by itself and known as Pokayoke or mistake proofing). Till that time these parts of the system can be stored in a compressed form in the hard drive or can be made available through the internet or via a DVD.

Lean thinking, 5 Why technique, and with waste elimination back in my mind I think I found a reasonable solution to the problem. Lean manufacturing is universal not because of its application but because of its thinking. This is a great example of that.

In a concluding note, I know some of the software is already working like this. I invite all of my readers to add your comments and your views.

Lean manufacturing brings results to “Symmons Industries”

It is amazing to see how fast lean manufacturing is revolutionizing the world of manufacturing. I have described lean as common scenes manufacturing in many of my earlier posts on this blog. Today I read a news article which proved these. This story tells us how easy is to improve any process with little bit of guidance and creative thinking. Especially it quantifies some of the benefits of lean manufacturing.

Story was on “Symmons Industries” based in Massachusetts. They have implemented lean in their manufacturing facilities with the intentions of improving their manufacturing processes. These are some highlights of their lean journey.

  1. Changing from forecast manufacturing to demand based manufacturing – In pure lean terms this is the application of pull system of manufacturing. Facility will not manufacturer based on assumed demand (which is the forecast), but to the actual demand of the market. The result is reduction of inventory and shorter lead times. The numbers they have achieved are amazing. This article states that they have reduced their finish good inventory by 98 %( from $3.8 million to $50,000) and lead time from two weeks to 98% shipped within 2 Days.
  2. Reduction of setup time and transportation – They have reduced their setup time to 15 minutes from 12 Hours by analyzing the system and using technology and automation carefully. Obviously this will improve the systems response time and will make the system very flexible.
  3. Simplification of ERP process – Simplification is a key concept of lean manufacturing. With the reduction of inventory levels there is no requirement to track the stocks in multiple levels. Simply they have incorporated their kanban process to signal the ERP system about the movement and back flushing will reduce the inventory so there is no need for a separate system entry.
  4. Improving the communication and integrating lean elements – communication between teams will make the system very transparent. Ideas will flow freely. Seamless integration and flow is very important lean concepts.

All the factors put together they have achieved 98% reduction of their finished goods inventory, lead time reduction from two weeks to 2 days(98% of the order) and importantly 55% improvement in sales. Low cost and higher volumes of sales, haven’t you dreamed about this one day. Lean manufacturing have made the dream come true for “Symmons Industries”. I think this is great example of application of lean and its benefits.


Lean manufacturing without vision

I am facing this interesting question day after day. Lots of people and organizations want to adopt lean manufacturing in their working places, but asked why they have no definite answer. Even in facilities known to be following lean practices, if you ask ten people about their expectations of lean, most of the times all the ten answers can vary fundamentally.

There are some organizations where everyone in the organization is passionate about lean and reads and do various lean and kaizen activities, yet the organization as a single unit do not know what they want out of lean. This is lean implemented without vision or without sharing the vision to the organization. In fact lean initiatives without proper vision will lead to more confusion and problems than elimination of waste. This can lead to sub optimization which is treated as an enemy in lean context.

Lean manufacturing does not start form its tools or techniques. It is the conceptual alignment of lean to your organizational needs and requirements will add value to your organization. If these lean initiatives are not channeled through a proper vision and coordination the system will not be manageable and will lead to confusion. All the parties involved in lean initiatives must understand and live the values of lean. All these parties must rally around the organizational vision and objectives of lean to be effective.

It is important to not assume that all your employees understand your vision of lean, you must check and confirm that they do truly. So how to identify this? Simple, select few employees from various areas of your organization and ask them what they actually want to achieve with lean. If you are not getting the answer the organization is looking for regularly, this means that there is a lag in communicating the vision. If you are getting the similar wrong answers continuously this means there is some problem in the communication channels you have used and it has altered the meaning of its lean values and vision. So correct the wrong impression and communicate the correct vision. If you get a mix result, it is the time to effectively communicate the vision of your lean initiative to your employees again.

Lean manufacturing without vision can do more harm to your organization than good. All the efforts must align to your vision on lean and pull in the same direction to make your lean effort effective and useful.