What Is Lean Manufacturing? (And How to Implement It)

Updated July 9, 2022

Lean manufacturing is a concept that emphasizes the importance of efficiency, adaptability, and continuous improvement in all aspects of the manufacturing process. Those who use it make a serious effort to manage resources carefully and minimize all forms of waste. You can benefit from learning how to implement this popular concept if you work in project management or manufacturing. In this article, we answer the question, "What is lean manufacturing?", explore its various forms and components, share its advantages and challenges, and explain how to implement it in an organization.

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What is lean manufacturing?

Understanding the answer to, "What is lean manufacturing?" can help you decide whether it's a process you can implement at your workplace. Lean manufacturing is a philosophy centred on eliminating waste in manufacturing processes. In this context, waste can refer either to physical waste generated by factory systems or to more abstract factors, such as the time and money lost because of inefficient processes and services. Waste reduction is part of a business's efforts to manage resources, money, time, and labour, and it can help the business contribute to environmental protection and public health.

Lean manufacturing is a systematic approach that assists manufacturers in simplifying their workflow and reducing costs while increasing productivity, quality, and revenue. It developed with the introduction of large-scale manufacturing and the expansion of local and regional markets and distribution to meet the demand for reliable and fast production. Its framework enables manufacturers to deliver valuable products to their customers sustainably while maintaining their functionality over time.

Forms of waste in lean manufacturing

The primary aim of lean manufacturing is to eliminate all forms of waste, including the following:

  • Idle time: This refers to any period during which employees or other stakeholders are waiting. While it's necessary for employees to take breaks and rest, it's also important for them to spend their time at work completing critical tasks and fulfilling their supply chain roles.

  • Underused talents: A manufacturer's personnel probably have various skills and talents that can contribute to the success of an organization. It's important that team leaders understand their colleagues' capabilities and delegate tasks appropriately to ensure that they collaborate effectively.

  • Excess inventory: This can occur because of overproduction, excess supply, a sales gap, or a lack of demand. If a business maintains a low inventory and meets its sales targets, it can reduce its storage costs and ensure it receives the revenue to stay in business.

  • Inefficient processes: An important principle of lean manufacturing is ensuring that all processes in a supply chain, from design to production to marketing, are free of errors. Efficient processes can assist businesses in producing high-quality products quickly and easily.

  • Defective products: If a manufacturer discovers any faulty goods during quality assurance or other production phases, it can address the problem to avoid reworking or scrapping products. It's important to recycle materials whenever possible and ensure that products are functional and meet the expectations of customers and stakeholders.

  • Additional transportation: Because transportation, including tolls and gas, can be costly, it's important that a business's logistics system is efficient and sustainable. This ensures that the correct deliveries arrive at the right locations and times.

  • Extra processing: Businesses may require additional processing to rework products or process returns from clients. If a business focuses on evaluating customer feedback and continuously improving products, it can meet customer expectations more frequently and reduce future processing costs.

Components of lean manufacturing

The field of lean manufacturing is broad and diverse, and many practitioners interpret it differently. Its most prevalent components include:

  • Planning ahead: Lean manufacturers proactively identify potential obstacles and adapt quickly to new challenges.

  • Optimizing processes: This can include automating repetitive tasks or adding or removing steps in a process as necessary.

  • Supporting stakeholders: This requires encouragement and concern for employees, vendors, suppliers, and customers.

  • Learning from mistakes: Mistakes happen, but it's beneficial to react to them with humility, optimism, and innovation.

  • Measuring performance: Some essential key performance indicators are lead time, cycle time, throughput, and cumulative flow.

How to implement lean manufacturing

With the proper commitment, many manufacturers can implement lean philosophies in their organizations. The following three steps outline how to accomplish this:

1. Examine the current situation

The first step in implementing any new process is collecting data and assessing the current situation. This may entail gathering quantitative data on productivity and success rates or conducting surveys to collect qualitative information about improving the business or its manufacturing process. Businesses can then analyze the data to determine how to reduce waste.

2. Make minor adjustments

The next step, making minor adjustments, can show a business the efficacy of lean management. For instance, it can attempt to optimize a particular process in its supply chain or implement a recycling program or other sustainable practices. Consultation with employees and communicating important information about new changes may assist the business in gaining support for its efforts.

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3. Pursue continuous improvement

A business can concentrate on the importance of adaptability in its manufacturing processes and approach new challenges with confidence. Reviewing feedback and developing employee skills through professional development courses and certifications and reviewing feedback are excellent ways to improve. Businesses can promote a culture of continuous improvement by demonstrating it through their leadership style or rewarding employees who show a commitment to improving their performance.

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Lean manufacturing principles

The lean methodology uses these principles to help to improve production systems. It streamlines the operational structure, making it easier to manage the work environment. The following are five principles for optimizing lean manufacturing systems:

  • Value: Before identifying and eliminating waste, it's important that companies define what's valuable to their customers. Then, companies can design a product that contains only what their customers require and eliminate unnecessary work and components.

  • Value-stream mapping: This enables businesses to visualize each step of the manufacturing process to identify waste and opportunities for improvement.

  • Create flow: This objective involves process improvement. By optimizing the value stream's steps, businesses can decrease the lead time for production.

  • Pull system: This entails starting new work only when there is customer demand for it. This enables just-in-time manufacturing.

  • Continuous improvement: By constantly identifying and eliminating waste through techniques such as value-stream mapping, businesses can decrease the lead time for production.

Related: How to Calculate the Cost of Goods Manufactured (COGM)

Benefits of lean manufacturing

There are many advantages to implementing lean manufacturing processes in business. The principles of lean manufacturing are also applicable to organizations outside of the manufacturing industry, such as marketing agencies or human resource firms. The benefits may vary according to a company's needs and objectives, but there are several advantages, including:

  • Saves time: Efficiency and time reduction are key components of lean manufacturing. Implementing the process may help businesses save time, giving them a greater capacity for business expansion or for giving employees time off to rest.

  • Saves money: Manufacturers can save money by minimizing waste in terms of resources and other production factors. For instance, decreasing the number of scrapped defective products can reduce material and supply costs.

  • Motivates employees: Continuous improvement, adaptability, and learning are all emphasized in lean manufacturing. Employees may feel more motivated if they can approach issues with critical thinking skills, learn from them, and resolve them in the future.

  • Protects the environment: Reducing waste at the manufacturing level protects the environment in the long term. For instance, if a business ships packages in bulk to save money on gas and delivery, it also mitigates the impact of transportation and energy consumption on air quality and pollution levels.

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Challenges of lean manufacturing

Lean manufacturing methods incorporate a variety of factors that businesses may consider prior to implementation. While some challenges exist in the process, there are ways to overcome them. The following are some of the challenges:

  • Depends on the organization's culture. Some businesses that implement lean manufacturing focus exclusively on the framework's tools but may not implement its values and culture adequately. Employee support is important to the success of lean manufacturing, which includes training, guiding them through the transition, encouragement, and listening to their feedback.

  • Can take time to implement fully: Lean manufacturing processes can take a long time to implement, and it requires informing colleagues and stakeholders about new protocols. One of its primary principles is a continuous learning approach, and the method promotes adjustment and customization.

  • Requires effective collaboration: Before implementing lean manufacturing, it's important that businesses consult with their colleagues first because they may adjust more readily if they understand the process. When manufacturers recognize the benefits of collaboration, they can typically handle processes more quickly and efficiently and offer greater support.

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