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You Bet Your Glass : October 2009

Trimming the fat – it’s time to get lean


October 16, 2009
By Frank Fulton

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Throughout my many years in the window business the most enlightening
episode I have experienced was my introduction to lean manufacturing.

Throughout my many years in the window business the most enlightening episode I have experienced was my introduction to lean manufacturing. The term “lean manufacturing” is somewhat misleading, although the principles certainly apply to manufacturing processes, they are just as pertinent to every aspect of conducting business: glazing contracting, service, replacement, etc. A more accurate label for the principles could be “lean management”, or “lean thinking”.

So, what is lean? Generally, it is what you are left with after eliminating all the waste or inefficiencies from your business, or from any aspect of your business. Depending on your situation it could mean reducing stock or in-process inventories, reducing your lead times, increasing your output, reducing site labour expenses, improving on-time commitments, improving customer service.

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The application of lean techniques can make improvements to any process of your business. The objective is to reduce waste or costs that do not provide any benefit or value to your customer.

For example, how much extra is your customer willing to pay for your staff to handle a piece of glass three times instead of once? How much extra is your customer willing to pay for your driver to travel back to your shop to bring materials that were forgotten? How happy is your customer watching your site crew waiting for material to arrive? How happy are you paying for them to wait? Lean enterprises identify problems like these, use lean techniques to evaluate the steps in their processes, separate those that add value from those that are wasteful, and initiate a revamped set of processes to achieve improvement.

The first lean project I was involved in was to improve the production output and quality of a vent product we produced at Fulton Windows for export to Japan. We were having difficulty getting orders completed on time even though we believed we had allowed more than sufficient time in our schedule to get them done. With the assistance of a lean trainer, we assembled a team comprised of employees, many of whom were not directly involved in the production process, to delve into what was going on….in lean terms “determining the current state.” What we found was assembly work spread throughout various stations in the shop, each station accompanied by a mini pile of materials. What appeared to be a beehive of activity actually turned out to be workers doing an inordinate amount of walking to get materials they needed to do their work.

It was all too apparent why we were having a tough time being on time. The solution wasn’t  all that difficult. By identifying the steps of necessary work that created value, re-organizing the work stations to link the assembly steps and moving some equipment we were able to set up a simple assembly line that greatly reduced handling, in process inventory, and the need for the assemblers to leave their work to find materials. Output increased significantly. But it didn’t stop there. Our review of the assembly process pointed out other areas that needed to be improved in our material processing and material management to sustain the improvements we had implemented in the assembly process. Once you start into lean management you will uncover no end of areas to be improved, thus the lean term “continuous improvement.”
So if adopting lean thinking into your organization would almost certainly help to improve your performance, output, quality, or bottom line, why would you wait? The usual reply is “we’re just too busy with getting jobs done right now”.

The invention of lean manufacturing is attributed to the Toyota Motor Company. Many believe it was their forward thinking and innovativeness that led to its creation but this is not quite the case. A small group of managers achieved a lean leap in a time of severe stress, making some of their boldest moves during the financial crisis of 1950.

As the Japanese economy entered a steep recession in that year, Toyota ran out of cash, which was tied up in inventory for products customers no longer wanted. The company fell under the control of bankers who divided the company in two, creating distinct firms to separate marketing and sale functions from product development and production functions. The pursuit of what became the Toyota Production System, along with the product development, supplier management, and customer support systems, was the creative response to this crisis.

A few line managers had some very simple ideas and an extreme sense of urgency: minimize lead-time from order to delivery (to free up scarce cash), remove waste from every process (to reduce costs and enhance quality) and take action now (because there wasn’t much time). But what they also had was a tight scientific discipline. While they did act quickly, they also took the necessary time to document the current state; to state their hypothesis very clearly, to conduct a rigorous experiment, to measure the results and to reflect on what they had actually achieved, sharing their findings widely.

Toyota’s remarkable act of creation – based on a scientific process of systematic discovery – was conducted by line managers as the most important part of their daily work. And they did most of their research in midst of a fierce battle for survival.

Considering Toyota’s achievements in the 1950s as the company struggled to survive, we have no excuses in our current period of economic uncertainty or downturn to put-off going lean. Systematic science works wherever it is applied. And it is more useful in the depths of a crisis. The only ingredient that may be lacking today is our determination, and that you can quickly rectify.


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