The foundation of lean manufacturing

By Helen Adams
How to build a strong foundation for the push towards lean manufacturing

Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO of Limble CMMS. Limble is a modern, easy to use mobile CMMS software that takes the stress and chaos out of maintenance by helping managers organize, automate, and streamline their maintenance operations.


In its simplest form, lean manufacturing can be defined as “being without waste”. Successful implementation of lean principles can improve the financial performance of any organisation - but especially in the manufacturing sector where most processes can be highly standardised.  


The case for lean manufacturing 

While processes related to lean manufacturing are typically implemented through larger enterprises, due to increased availability of digital solutions, small and medium-size businesses can also work on establishing some lean practices. 

About 69.7% of manufacturers utilise some form of lean practices. Certain lean methodologies are harder to apply than others, and they all require at least a moderate amount of effort. Still, they have the potential to bring huge benefits which simply can’t be overlooked in a competitive environment. Some older research cites the following benefits:

  • 90% inventory and lead-time reduction
  • Up to 26% delivery target achieved
  • More than 33% enhancement in stock turnover
  • 33% space efficiency improved
  • 26% reduction in scrap
  • 35% productivity improved
  • 15% quality improved
  • 25% profit margins improved
  • 5% overall effective efficiency

Even if those statistics are overblown, it’s undeniable that implementing lean manufacturing comes with easily measurable advantages: 

  • Meet the demand of customers on time, eliminate the work from the process that is considered non-value
  • Reduce the amount of work-in-progress inventory
  • Provide flexibility
  • Minimise the percentage of rework
  • Build a pool of multi-skilled operators capable of reacting fast

If you are one of those manufacturing organisations that wants to go lean in the near future, here are some tips on what to focus on to build a strong foundation for this transition.  


Implement lean maintenance

Lean maintenance, as the name suggests, refers to the application of the lean principle to maintenance, repairs, and overhaul (MRO) activities. It helps maintenance departments to eliminate waste and essentially do more with less resources.  

Waste in maintenance is a constant problem due to a wide variety of inefficient practices like: 

  • Excessive maintenance 
  • Unnecessary transportation of spares
  • Walking back to a central location after every task to pick up new work orders
  • Wasting time searching for tools and replacement parts 
  • Work order pile-ups due to poor inventory management
  • Premature replacement of costly spares
  • Delays and downtime due to slow processing or overprocessing
  • Extra expenses to correct servicing errors and repair defects

In a way, lean maintenance is a prerequisite for a lean manufacturing system. It has the potential to minimise unscheduled downtime (DT) by optimising maintenance support activity and overhead. 

Implementing and running a lean maintenance department has its own set of requirements:

Lean manufacturing hinges on standardisation, predictability, and the ability to spot and address process inefficiencies. Implementing proactive lean maintenance practices forces standardisation, reduces unpredictable events like unexpected equipment breakdowns, and gives the organisation the opportunity to basically test run the implementation of lean principles on a smaller scale.  


Start introducing general lean principles throughout the value streams

Properly applied lean principles can result in 40% less need for manpower, save 30% of floor area, and reduce the delivery time from 7.5 to 3 days. 

The following lean principles can be implemented at any organisation for mass production of products with minimum waste: 

  1. Define value accurately from the customer’s standpoint for both product and service
  2. Determine the value streams for service, product and eliminate the waste along the value streams
  3. Make the products and services flow without disruption across the value streams
  4.  Authorise the making of products and services according to customer demand
  5. Pursue perfection by removing layers of wastes on a regular basis


Build a proactive and lean culture focused on continuous improvement (CI)

CI can be defined as the planned, organised, and systematic processes of ongoing, incremental, and company-wide change of existing practices aimed at improving company performance. Activity and behaviour that facilitate and allow the development of continuous improvement include problem-solving, PDCA (plan-do-check-act), and other continuous improvement tools. 

Establishing a lean proactive culture doesn't happen overnight by having top management institute a new lean policy. It requires buy-in from all employees. After all, their everyday actions will reflect the “leanness” of your production floor.

Implementing modern lean methodologies will require constant review and improvement of existing procedures. To have a workforce that will actively support that, workers need to be “groomed” to understand the value of being proactive (looking for and suggesting improvements) and lean (sticking to best practices and avoiding wasteful actions).  


Make sure your workforce has the required skill set

Implementing lean manufacturing can’t be done if:

  1. There are no employees in your organisation that understand lean principles, how to spot inefficiencies, and how to correct them
  2. Employees are not properly trained for the tasks they are responsible for (they lack the understanding of the process or simply do not have the required technical skills)

The latter can be solved by implementing proper safety and maintenance training programmes for maintenance professionals and having a strong onboarding process for machine operators and other employees on the plant floor. Proper training, in general, will be focused on the improvement of the worker's skill level to enhance their versatility to achieve a higher level of adaptability and flexibility in the organisation.

The former can be a bigger issue. Managers responsible for the implementation of lean practices need to have a good understanding of different lean methods like 5S and VSM (value stream mapping). If needed, companies can always send employees to take relevant courses or hire consultants to organise different workshops.


Start small, go slow

One of the biggest mistakes organisations can make is trying to change everything at once. Manufacturing floor is a home to a complex set of interconnected processes. It is hard to know, how will the change in one process, impact downstream processes? Also, you do not want to overburden workers by completely revamping their workflow, at least not if you’re expecting to keep the same production tempo.

Start with lean maintenance, work on building a proactive lean culture, and insist on continuous improvement. A year from now, you might be surprised how far your organisation is in terms of eliminating waste and increasing efficiency. 


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