Front Row

Still thinking about Lean?

By Jack Kenny | April 15, 2014

A few basics about a complex process that could change your bottom line.

This column is for label printers who don’t yet practice Lean Manufacturing, who want to but have doubts, or who think that the way they do things is just fine, thanks.

Just after the turn of the century, word began to spread among label converters and suppliers about a manufacturing philosophy called Lean. The first article that I read about it exasperated me. At the time I was a parent of adolescents and active as a volunteer in school policy oversight in my town. The Lean article reminded me of the practice among educators of creating obfuscatory terms to describe everyday things. Why must they do that? The printing world already had the Deming philosophy (which was not widespread among label printers), so why entertain another, complete with its own set of philosophical jargon? Besides, I was a philosophy minor in college, and I fully understood the economic value of that pursuit.

The basic questions I had were: How does it work, and what is the goal? When Lean began to attract the attention of forward-thinking converters, it became apparent that there might be a pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow. It wasn’t long, then, before the meaning and practices of Lean Manufacturing became clear to me through the guidance of some good teachers within the industry, authoritative books on the subject, and observation of the concepts in practice. If your mantra is “seeing is believing,” you might be pleased to learn that one can see the process of Lean in action on the production floor. One can also see it on a line in the accounting books: the bottom line.

Change your mind. The practice of changing one’s mind usually involves something like forgoing the burger and fries and opting for a salad, or taking the family to Nova Scotia for vacation instead of another trip to Disney World. In the big leagues, changing your mind means altering – significantly and permanently – your attitudes and behaviors, your thoughts and your experiences of the world around you. In business it means welcoming a new way of understanding and practicing what you do, how you do it, and why.

Lean requires a change of mind
A simple definition of Lean Manufacturing is the removal of waste from your operations for the purpose of creating value for your customers. The concept is derived from the Toyota Production System developed in Japan, and began its expansion outside of that country in the 1980s and early ’90s. In a Lean context, the Japanese use the term muda to mean waste. Muda translates also as “futility, uselessness, idleness, superfluity.”

The seven types of muda in manufacturing are Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-processing, Over-production, and Defects. The terms might vary according to who’s talking, but they remain basically the same. Without going into detail about these (explanations are easy to find online and in books), I will point out that each represents exactly zero value for the customer and possibly negative value for the manufacturer. Two examples: When a product is moved around (Transportation), whether inside or beyond the plant walls, it doesn’t change or affect what the customer is willing to pay for; when an employee engages in excessive Motion to accomplish a task, it is wasted energy, of no value to the customer and costly to the business.

The idea that excess motion is waste can be applied to just about everything in the routine life of a human being, not just to making things at work. On a very small scale, I take pride in my system of vacuuming and mopping the floors at home. It saves time and cuts down on sweat and potential aches. Thanks, Toyota!

Lean Manufacturing comprises many concepts and applications, and is pretty much a huge school of thought. This can daunt the faint-hearted, but if you’re open to changing your mind you’ll realize that performing even one task in a Lean manner will have positive results. Practitioners of Lean refer to the process as continuous improvement. It means that there is no end to improving your work flow, to raising the value of your products to your customers. It also means that you’re not under a deadline to get things done right. Take it at your own pace.

If eliminating waste from your production sounds challenging, identifying waste is probably just as hard. People are so used to the familiar that they often can’t see an alternative method. Lean thinkers came up with a process called Value Stream Mapping to help identify waste. Value Stream Mapping allows you to examine the state of your operations – all of them, not just printing and prepress – and come up with an ideal stream that takes the product from its entry at the front door right through to arrival at the customer. The Value Stream Map is an actual drawing of what happens at your business, with value producing events contrasted against the events that produce no value (muda), such as Over-production, Defects, and Motion. You can tack this map to your office wall and stare at it every day, and before long the no-value events might begin to give you ideas.

If you decide to make changes to your operations based on the map, you’ll find that creating the subsequent map will give you some pleasure, and perhaps some profit. Don’t stop there. Remember, it’s continuous.

Lean also requires commitment and communication. Full-time commitment and communication. Everyone on the team must be educated about the Lean process, about the events with Japanese names that will be conducted at the plant, about the changes in routine that will be permanent, about the concepts which, upon the changing of the mind, will live in the forefront of workplace thought and action. It is likely, maybe even certain, that some employees won’t be able to handle the change. That’s the hard part. Lean requires change. Continuous change.

Every employee, from management to custodial staff, must be kept actively informed of what all others are engaged in. Most of us probably have worked in the past, or even today, under managers who share little or no information about the business with co-workers or underlings. Aside from that practice being wrong on every level, it is antithetical to continuous improvement.

A boss that doesn’t communicate has the hardest job of all. Lean Manufacturing requires that the top person at the company be fully committed to and totally engaged in the process. Engagement means being present throughout the plant, joining the Lean events, and listening to opinions and ideas. In other words, being accessible, both physically and mentally. Just as children learn how to become adults by observing adults, employees learn how to invest their knowledge and talents in a company by observing the behavior of the leaders, the primary investors.

There will always be more muda to shovel, which is why it’s called continuous improvement. But after a while, after the wastes are minimized and the value stream flows freely, Lean takes on the appearance of common sense, which we all know is highly uncommon.

The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached at