The drive for continuous process improvement began in the 50s and is now helping manufacturers around the world be more efficient and profitable

Robert Milnes, a training consultant at Renault-Nissan Consulting discusses how lean overhauled the manufacturing industry.


In striving for business process improvement, many organisations adopt Lean practices, the principles of Kaizen or continuous improvement. Whichever label is assigned to the process, there is no doubt that this philosophy, which rose to prominence after implementation at a factory in Japan, has helped countless organisations reduce their bottom line and increase profit.


Nowhere is the effect of continuous process improvement more obvious than within the manufacturing industry, where the slightest saving of time or inventory can have major implications for success. The philosophy was first initiated within a Japanese car manufacturing plant in the 1950s and since then businesses around the world have implemented the same practices, embedding a culture of improvement not just when it comes to producing goods but within their teams. So how has Lean overhauled the manufacturing industry and helped countless businesses develop thriving, enduring products or brands?


Managing the flow of tasks and work


Manufacturing goods involves production lines, countless individuals and machinery and the efficient management and delivery of materials or components. In car manufacturing for example, hundreds of components and parts must be in place at the right time to ensure production staff have what they need and that vehicles can be assembled efficiently. By managing this flow effectively, factories are able to produce more, faster, with few delays in the delivery of components at each stage. This is inevitably good for business, delivery of finished goods that meet the demands of the customer and creating better efficiency, which has a direct impact on costs and profit.  


The Just In Time Production philosophy takes process improvement a step further. It’s an element of Lean production that refers to the sourcing or making of products, materials and components that are necessary to manufacture goods at the optimum moment they are required. By managing the inventory necessary for producing a car for example, parts can be delivered as and when they are needed (hence the term Just in Time), reducing over-ordering or the cost of storing excess supplies.


Standardising for process improvement  


With so many different processes involved in manufacturing products, it’s important to know what works and what doesn’t. Over the years, manufacturing businesses have learnt that in order to be Lean organisations they should develop robust processes that maximise the amount they can produce, particularly when there is high demand for their goods. Once an effective process has been established, it can be documented and replicated, something known as a Standardized Process in Lean manufacturing or Continuous Improvement. This has helped manufacturers around the world to create efficiency within their companies by cutting back on unnecessary work and making sure that best practice is shared.


Avoiding over-production


Pull systems often form a significant part of any process improvement when implementing Lean principles. These allow a worker to ‘pull’ in tasks they are responsible for as soon as they are ready. This is the opposite to a ‘push’ process system, which aims to produce products as quickly as possible driven by the demand for the goods. With a pull system, so-called ‘Kanban’ control methods help to identify when components or items have been used or ‘consumed’ in a process. These can then be replenished to continue or speed up the flow of production. For a manufacturing business, what this means is less wasted time spent waiting for the materials necessary to complete a given activity.


Reducing waste


When it comes to the principles of Lean, reducing or minimising waste is at the core and a fundamental activity for making any business more efficient. Excess inventory, supplies, time, transportation or even movements must be eliminated to make sure process improvement is continuous and costs are reduced. In a manufacturing plant, even the movements of robots will be assessed and scrutinised to ensure they are as efficient as possible. This is another significant reason why Lean has overhauled the manufacturing industry, helping it to combat unnecessary time spent on carrying out tasks. When you identify and then eradicate waste within a factory, you immediately make cost savings, improve efficiency and gain a competitive advantage – just one of the reasons the principles of Lean have been adopted around the world.

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