A Lean Culture

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by Noelle Stapinsky

Simple lean strategies keep small to medium shops flowing and competitive


Most small to medium manufacturing shops are born lean with only the necessary operators and machines needed to fulfill client orders. The shop floor real estate is valuable, and as shops inevitably grow, adding new technology and equipment to keep pace with increasing demand, waste can easily creep into the process. 

Such changes make a strong case for integrating lean strategies that will help increase efficiencies and maintain a shop’s competitiveness. But as Larry Cote, president and CEO of Ottawa, ON-based Lean Advisors, would tell you, “a key aspect of lean is looking at the big picture. You don’t want to lose sight of that.”

Cote says it’s important to understand the entire flow of production from start to finish, not just the areas that might be causing bottlenecks. “When we get involved with an organization we want to look at what their current state is, what they’re trying now and what they’ve tried in the past. That’s the first step.

“When we bring in the concepts and methodology of lean, you don’t want to ram it into what they’re already doing, but rather integrate it into what they’re trying to accomplish,” says Cote. “[Shops] already know they need to change and want to change, and they have a lot of ideas. We put structure around how to go about analyzing the current state properly and then actually develop a future state they can work towards that will support the strategy, direction and vision.”


Culture Club
The next step, and the most essential part of integrating lean processes, is involving and educating the staff. And smaller job shops have an advantage as they tend to be more flexible and responsive to introducing change. 

“An important aspect of lean is getting everyone in the organization involved, so when you start making changes, those affected by them or involved in them are already there,” says Saverio Pota, a senior consultant for Lean Advisors and a former owner of a metal fabrication shop. “When you have employees coming up with a solution to a problem or introducing a new process or lean concept, you want them to have the authority to make some of those changes.”

Pota laughs, “just to clarify, you’re not making CEOs out of everyone, it’s about getting them involved and aware of what you’re trying to do.”

It’s also essential that everyone is aware that making improvements to processes is not intended to decrease jobs. Clearly, if a change is made that reduces a process from needing four people to three and you lay that person off, it certainly won’t encourage staff participation the next time you try to implement another improvement. “Lean is not about job reduction, it’s about increasing capacity. That is key,” says Pota. 

Having a full understanding of a company’s process from the time the order comes in to delivery will help create strategic lean activities or Kaizens, which is a lean term for improvement projects carried out in a short time frame. Many companies get stuck in the rut of chasing bottlenecks, where too often when one issue is solved it creates another down the value stream. Consultants such as Lean Advisors call this “exciting chaos”.

“The list of activities or Kaizens is designed to drive the value stream and improvements to the overall process, versus just jumping all over the place and introducing more waste in the system because you didn’t anticipate what the impact would be on the next operation,” says Pota. “You really want that structured approach. And this comes back to involving people in the organization that might not have a formal education or training.”

Cote adds, “It’s about changing that culture so people aren’t thinking about just doing their job, but about how they can add value to the client.”


Grow with the flow
Indeed, small and medium shops are already pretty tight knit in terms of the shop floor footprint, parts don’t need to be carried 25 feet to the next operation, and many shops doing short runs don’t often have a lot of money invested in inventory. 

But a challenge for some small companies, and when lean can be somewhat counterintuitive, is if they decide it would be more efficient, for example, to bend more parts than needed for a customer because of the time it takes to set up the press brake tooling. 

“The biggest challenge you have with that, especially in a job shop environment, is you don’t know if you’re going to make those parts again. You’ve invested time and effort and you think you’re saving money, but now you’re just holding inventory,” says Pota. “That inventory may be an asset on the balance sheet from a lean perspective, but it’s a liability. It’s money you’re tying up.”

Certainly, some companies need to carry an inventory in particular cases. But until they can move it, it needs to be managed. Lean tools such as Kanban, a visual workflow management tool developed by Toyota, can help manage inventory and not lose sight of it. The Kanban system was inspired by a supermarket method where clerks would stock shelves based on inventory and not vendor supply. Toyota took that concept and created a system that would match inventory with demand, while achieving higher quality and throughput.

“Ideally, if you’re holding inventory you want to keep it in a raw material form so you’re not investing cost into it. Obviously once you start fabricating it’s going to take up more room because it’s changing shape,” says Pota. 

Another big challenge for job shops is managing workflow when they invest in new technology and machinery. Not all systems are plug and play, and where they’re positioned on the shop floor is vital.

“You can get the best equipment and stick it in your shop, but if it doesn’t support the end-to-end process, you’re not creating value for your client, and you’re probably costing yourself money and putting yourself out of the competitive range,” says Cote. 

All companies want to grow, but what they don’t want to do is introduce waste or lose sight of lean early on. “Consider the impact of the overall flow when you’re changing the layout [of your process],” says Pota. “A small investment into getting some training and understanding of lean is important to keep in the forefront. As you grow you’re going to think twice about where you’re going to place a new piece of equipment.”

From his job shop days, Pota admits to being guilty of squeezing equipment in wherever he could. “Those are the pressures you work under,” he says. “I have this new equipment, but where are we going to put it. Another lesson there too is that the first piece of equipment you might have installed back in 1989 might have been good at the time, but if you look at the bigger approach and overall flow, they might not be so good now. You do have to let go of some of those legacy machines.”

For smaller companies, implementing lean processes doesn’t have to be a large investment. It can be as simple as doing more visual and manual changes that create flow and increase production flexibility. At the end of the day, job shops aren’t designing products, the customers are. What the shop wants to deliver is a good price and timely delivery on orders. SMT

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