How Lean Manufacturing Stabilizes During Disruptions

The pandemic shouldn’t change a manufacturing shop’s approach to improvement.

Lean manufacturing can be a stabilizing force metal fabricators and other manufacturers during disruptive times—and the pandemic certainly qualifies. Getty Images

Nearly a year into the pandemic, you continue to face uncertainty about how to respond and adjust. Sure, we have vaccines, but how robust will the rollout be? There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but we still don’t know how far the end of the tunnel really is.

Over the past year, previously nonexistent variables emerged on your radar with a vengeance. Some were technical (how does the virus spread?) and some were operational (how do we arrange work processes to minimize exposure? ). Still others were regulatory (can we even have the plant open for business? ). Everyone has endured tumultuous times.

Wherever you are on your lean journey, you might ask how lean manufacturing has helped your organization weather the pandemic. Have your lean initiatives remained full-steam ahead, or have you backed off until conditions stabilize? Do lean manufacturing’s fundamental principles, methods, and concepts help or get in the way?

The Great Stabilizer
Lean manufacturing provides a framework to set expectations and operate according to a plan, thus minimizing confusion and uncertainty for everyone at the company—up and down the org chart.

At the top of the org chart, leaders set the direction, fund investments for new health and safety requirements, and establish the tone for how the company weathers the pandemic. They meet the needs of various stakeholders, including customers, suppliers, owners, employees, employees’ families, and the communities where their businesses operate. They leverage the lean body of knowledge to be thorough and consistent in how they lead and respond. In essence, they use lean to enable the organization’s business and operational strategies.

Front-line supervisors use the lean framework to execute operations safely. Before the pandemic, they used to strike a balance between various factors: getting product out the door, developing people, and looking for ways to make the operation more effective and efficient. Now they also need to keep the plant safe from the coronavirus.

It could be chaotic if supervisors simply did what they think is best based only on their own experiences. In doing so they could inject a great deal of variation. Contrast this to a group of supervisors, well-trained in lean manufacturing, who share and implement best practices to keep employees safe.

For the front-line employees who fabricate, assemble, or move material, the tactical elements of lean enable them, both individually and collectively, to improve their workplaces. Provided they have been trained in the use of lean tools, they will be able to execute their jobs productively and safely.

Practical Examples in Action
Many companies start their lean initiatives with 5S. From there, many organizations make sure 5S remains integral to almost any improvement project, be it on the plant floor or in the office. Eventually, 5S and overall cleanliness become key performance indicators, from the individual cell level all the way to overall corporate performance.

After 5S is implemented and becomes effective, everyone simply expects the floor to be clean and for tools to be in a certain place. The 5S audit keeps the focus and the resulting scores drive desired behaviors. And now 5S has become a logical place to fold in any additional cleaning and arranging specific to minimizing virus transmission.

Given the severe consequences of spreading the virus, everyone needs to communicate expectations clearly and effectively. Visual management and standard work are part of the answer. Consider social-distance spacing, sanitizer locations, workplace sanitizing check sheets, and Zoom or Teams meeting schedules and agendas: The more visual these items become, the easier they are understood and complied with. Similarly, standard work and standard work instructions help clearly define how a job should be done while reducing the risk for virus spread. To minimize contact, employees might use new ways to hand off or convey products or information.

Able to mitigate the risk of virus transmission, your ventilation system might now play a bigger role in employee safety. The ventilation flow rate and direction may become just as important as the feed and speed of a machine tool on the floor. So, just as you would pay attention to total productive maintenance (TPM) on the machine tool, you now pay equal attention to the ventilation system using TPM.

Aligning all levels and functions in your company—with effective communication throughout the org chart—has always been important, and it is even more important now. Companies use operating principles to succinctly define principles that drive behavior, decisions, and resource allocation. This includes how exactly people need to “migrate” their standard practices depending on the status of the pandemic.

Find ways to link operational planning up and down the organization. For instance, you can rely on hoshin planning to communicate goals throughout the company (for more on this, you can Google “hoshin planning,” “hoshin kanri,” and “policy deployment”). You can use hoshin planning’s catchball technique where you plan, toss it down, adjust the plan, and toss back up. The aim is to get productive involvement from many parts of the organization, which creates ownership and alignment. These enhance communication of and expectations about what is most important to your company’s operational success—including keeping all stakeholders safe and healthy.

Finally, a fundamental tenet of a successful lean journey is respect for people. Employees must be the focus of your pandemic response. Show them respect by listening and learning about their perspectives, understanding their disruptions, developing effective countermeasures, and implementing safe practices.

What’s on the Other Side?
When the pandemic is “over,” do you eliminate all the safety precautions and practices like masking, sanitizing, and distancing? Do you go back to business as usual, or do you maintain some or all of the new disciplines? We really don’t know yet, of course, but that doesn’t mean the pandemic should put your lean initiatives on hold. Despite all the disruption, when it comes to lean, it’s still full- steam ahead.

You might tweak your approach, perhaps add a few items. Lean manufacturing provides a foundation you can tailor or adjust to meet your needs. But changes should not be dramatic. The lean body of knowledge is a robust body of knowledge. It will prepare you for business once the shackles of the virus are eliminated. Lean will carry your company forward, whatever the other side looks like.

By: Jeff Sipes March 1, 2021

The Fabricator 

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