Moving Beyond The Five Principles of Lean Manufacturing

October 28, 2022

Every so often, there is a new business trend that appears with promises to be the panacea for every business woe–six sigma, Kaizen, lean manufacturing, and agile business principles. Like the good business people they are, the creators of these methodologies sell them to anyone who looks in their general direction. This, however, doesn’t mean that these are all the best options for every business or that they are the best option for every circumstance. Lean manufacturing principles, in particular, have been given inordinate attention among those working in manufacturing. While it does make sense to apply lean manufacturing principles to those businesses in manufacturing, these solutions are specific to problems of efficiency. For problems that move beyond inefficiencies, much like those that many manufacturers see today, an entirely different toolset is required.

What’s Wrong with Lean Manufacturing

It’s important to clarify that there’s nothing inherently wrong with lean manufacturing. Companies should attempt to identify areas where there are inefficiencies and implement the five principles:

  • identify value
  • map value
  • create flow
  • establish pull
  • seek perfection

However, so much hype has been created around lean anything that separating the wheat from the chaff has become somewhat of a fool’s errand. To add an additional layer of complexity, the principles of lean manufacturing are an artifact of a different time.

Lean manufacturing appeared on the scene in the 1990s and certainly made advancements in manufacturing. However, after one war, one great recession, and one pandemic, the USA and the world, in general, are in a totally different manufacturing environment. Expecting the five principles of lean manufacturing to bring relevant information to bear is like reading a 1990s edition of the Wall Street Journal for investment advice. Perhaps some of the underlying fundamentals are still the same, but the practical application may look quite different.

Imperfect Implementation of the Five Principles of Lean Manufacturing

In a vacuum, the five principles of lean manufacturing may contribute a substantial amount of efficiency to manufacturers and OEMs. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that imperfect implementation is often the rule rather than the exception. This was especially true during the early days when there was enthusiasm around the idea of lean manufacturing, earnest or otherwise. Any company could implement a lean minimally disruptive (some may call it a lean) version of lean manufacturing and then tell their shareholders about their new initiative. Toyota has been and continues to be the gold standard of lean manufacturing. However, few companies have taken the principles to heart in the way that Toyota has. Consequently, few companies have had the results that Toyota has.

Lean Manufacturing in a Post-COVID Environment

Prior to COVID and the global shutdown response, supply chain efficiency was taken for granted. Then, in mid-march 2020, the gears that drove the world simply stopped turning, and everyone from bottom-tier to tier-1 and OEMs shut down their production lines. Consequently, in the weeks, months, and years after the initial shutdown, the supply chains that used to be taken for granted rose to become a board-level issue. 

OEMs began to expect prompt arrival of supplies as production slowly came back online. Suppliers, for their part, had little capacity to plan for the inventory and store that inventory. This was largely due to adopting practices that were so lean that even the safety net was removed. It turned out that lean manufacturing was the correct playbook some of the time in a pre-pandemic world. 

Truly Lean Manufacturing

The applicability of lean manufacturing is highly dependent on the circumstances of each company; this was the case even before the pandemic. However, much of manufacturing exists in such a volatile environment that the five principles of lean manufacturing may not adequately address problems. There are, however, a few actions that almost all companies would benefit from taking.

Bring on a Neutral Third Party

The first recommendation to any company trying to optimize manufacturing and operations is to bring on an experienced partner to evaluate their processes. Lean manufacturing cannot be confined to five steps; every business’ position is unique. The best way to eliminate waste and implement lean manufacturing may not be evident or may not fit neatly into the five steps of lean manufacturing. Additionally, a company’s leadership may be too close to the problem to be able to see it clearly, or there could even be incentives to be myopic and misdiagnose problems. Seraph is able to make a full head-to-toe evaluation of a company, create a step-by-step plan for improvement and train the leadership for long-term success. Our experts are standing by for an initial free consultation.

Train the Leadership

Second, many of the major issues experienced by many companies start with leadership. Even today, supply chains are taking the brunt of the blame for issues that may be solved by simply educating and training a company’s leadership. Seraph has seen, in several cases, a major disconnect between the shop floor and middle to upper management. Companies can give themselves a great initial boost by implementing leader standard work, setting vision, creating expectations, providing tools, coaching, training, and holding decision-makers accountable. In many cases, merely dealing with inconsistencies and inefficiencies within leadership teams is sufficient to set the company on a sure path.

Conclusion

The five principles of lean manufacturing have been held up by many as the way to fix all manufacturing ills. However, lean manufacturing is a very specific playbook for a very specific set of circumstances. Problems that fall outside of the purview of lean manufacturing will, more than likely, need a customized approach to yield the desired results. Seraph has the expertise to help navigate and overcome the obstacles posed by current market conditions and pick up the slack left by lean manufacturing principles. Our operations consultants earned their stripes working with suppliers and OEMs and are ready to help your company plan to survive short-term pain and thrive in the long-term market. Contact us today to schedule a discovery call, or see our case studies for more information.

Co-authored by:
Brian Fairchild

Director of Business Development

LinkedIn

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