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Lean Manufacturing: Effective Management System or Corporate Cult?

Sarah Venning
Lean manufacturing waste dial switch

Although the term ‘lean manufacturing’ has only been around since the 1990s, its principles long predate this, having been cited in books written by Henry Ford and even Benjamin Franklin. Fast forward to the present day and lean manufacturing has been adopted by many of the largest companies in the world. But while many view it as being the perfect manufacturing model, others see it as a cult-like management system that demands relentless productivity from its practitioners.

Of course, like any business model, there are both positives and negatives to the use of lean manufacturing. Indeed, its prevalence amongst household-name OEMs surely gives a certain sense of credence to lean manufacturing, but do the potential benefits outweigh the risk of failure? Can lean manufacturing actually lead to decreased output, as opposed to heightened productivity?

What is Lean Manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing is a management system that aims to eliminate waste from the production cycle. ‘Waste’ refers to more than just physical waste such as raw materials; it also refers to wasted time and even wasted talent. In short, it focuses on streamlining manufacturing and reduced resources to the bare minimum needed to add value. The overall aim is to save money and produce quality products efficiently.

Many of the lean management programmes seen today, such as 5S and Six Sigma, are rooted in Japanese manufacturing practices – specifically, the Toyota Production System (TPS). Toyota are pioneers in lean manufacturing, having used these techniques since as far back as the 1930s, resulting in a finely-tuned lean production model that continues to work successfully today.

Companies who have adopted lean methods focus on reducing downtime within the production line to speed up the rate of manufacture, while certain processes such as quality control are automated. The manifestation of lean varies from company to company, though the ‘wastes’ they aim to eliminate are almost always universal.

Benefits of Lean Manufacturing:

When properly executed, lean manufacturing offers a host of possible benefits. By streamlining production & assembly and assigning responsibility of specific tasks to individual teams or staff members, the quality of the end product can improve exponentially, while manufacturing output can increase. Attention to detail up to – but not above – the standard of customer satisfaction results in less errors and therefore less defective products; in turn, companies often enjoy less physical waste and improved cost savings.

Accountability of specific tasks within an assembly line also adds transparency to the effectiveness of the process, allowing problem areas to be easily identified and improved. This assignment of individual tasks means that employees are utilised in accordance with the strength of their capabilities – therefore, everyone on the payroll feels valued and morale is raised.

The lean approach also leads to less stockpiling, meaning that manufacturers save the space it takes to house excess raw materials, ultimately leading to a facility that ‘flows’ better within the context of the production process.

Of course, the overall aim of lean manufacturing is to increase profits and scale back unnecessary investment – whether monetary or time-centric. However appealing it may seem, it’s important to remember that lean manufacturing comes with a few caveats that can easily hinder a company’s success.

The Cult Status of Lean Manufacturing:

Lean manufacturing has gained a cult following of companies and individuals who are fluent in its practices as well as its extensive vernacular of associated buzzwords. It’s this unique language – as well as the hierarchical ‘belt’ system seen in the Lean Six Sigma management system – that has also led others to believe that lean manufacturing is, quite literally, a cult.

Lean Six Sigma is a model that aims to eliminate the wastes outlined in its DOWNTIME acronym – that is, defects, overproduction, waiting, non-utilised talent, transportation, inventory, motion and extra-processing. On the face of it, Lean Six Sigma is representative of the larger cross-section of lean manufacturing programmes; however, training is deployed using a belt-based system often seen in martial arts. Newcomers to Lean Six Sigma start off as yellow belts, before working their way up the ranks to a black belt. As Lean Six Sigma – and indeed, lean manufacturing as a whole – focuses on improving efficiency with fewer resources, many workers feel threatened and are therefore resistant to its implementation. Coupled with a tangible knowledge hierarchy, it’s somewhat understandable how these suspicions have misled certain individuals to believe that lean manufacturing is the tip of a rather sinister iceberg.

However, we don’t need to approach these extremes to understand why a lean approach may backfire. Lean manufacturing is notoriously hard to implement and requires both patience and company-wide buy-in to be successful. It is also seen by some as being a rigid business culture that feeds off of 100% productivity, without any sympathy to the day-to-day variables that entail human nature.

Due to the scaling-back of resources, there is also less room for error within the lean manufacturing approach. Without any stockpiled raw materials, a sudden increase in demand can lead to missed deadlines and late deliveries. In essence, there is no ‘fat’ to fuel lean companies through unforeseen circumstances, meaning that planning has to be the lifeblood of lean management systems.

A decrease in output can also occur when companies become so obsessed with tracking their own metrics that real-life productivity is subconsciously shelved. In a nutshell, there is a risk of lean manufacturing backfiring simply through its own existence.

Is Fatter Better?:

Owing to the challenges outlined above, it’s not surprising that lean implementation has an extremely high rate of failure. Many companies fail to plan accordingly and lack patience, expecting to see results much quicker than is realistically possible. Lean manufacturing is more than just a management system - it is a company culture in its own right, meaning that it required its practitioners to change from the inside out before tangible success is evident.

On paper, the benefits and pitfalls of lean manufacturing are hard to weigh up due to the variables of its subjects. However, it is clear that lean manufacturing is not a ‘one size fits all’ and while OEMs such as Toyota have honed a lean approach with amazing results, it may be beneficial for others to leave a bit more ‘fat’ to tide them over.


What are your thoughts on lean manufacturing? Leave us a comment below!


About Sarah Venning

Sarah is a sales & marketing content writer, with six years of experience within the engineering & manufacturing industry.  Working both at Qimtek and on a freelance basis, she can usually be found hammering away at a keyboard or with her head in a pile of engineering drawings. 

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