Lean process improvement is about eliminating waste and inefficiencies from both business and manufacturing processes. The focus is on running a lean organization by making full use of resources without applying wasteful efforts. The goal is to maximize value for customers and other stakeholders.
The concept of lean manufacturing or lean process improvement is typically attributed to Toyota Motor Corporation. From the 1950s through the 1980s, Toyota developed the Toyota Production System (TPS) based on concepts an MIT researcher described as lean. The success of TPS is supported by two conceptual pillars: Just-in-Time and Jidoka.
Toyota’s TPS enables Just-in-Time (JIT) production through pull-based processes. Production is pulled from upstream processes by downstream processes based on actual demand for parts. This concept prevents building wasteful inventories. Unlike traditional manufacturing which produces to fit forecasted customer demands, JIT builds to actual customer demands.
The concept of jidoka involves immediately stopping production on time every time or when quality problems arise, which prevents creating a wasteful inventory of potentially defective materials. Machines should be equipped to automatically stop when enough parts have been produced or problems have been detected. When people are producing parts, such as in manual assembly operations, they need to be authorized to stop production when problems are found.
The 7 Wastes
Lean process improvement focuses on eliminating waste to maximize value. Toyota introduced seven key types of waste, which their TPS focuses on eliminating. These wastes are: producing too much, or building for inventory rather than to meet customer needs; delay, such as waiting for materials, authorization or other issues; unnecessarily moving product from one location to another; over-processing, or adding more effort than is needed; inventory, which contributes to facility and storage costs; unnecessary movement, such as when employees waste time routinely moving from place to place in the plant; and correcting problems that could have been prevented.
Lean process improvement also focuses on kaizen, a term which by itself represents continuous improvement. Toyota and other organizations with lean production systems authorize and expect employees to work in teams to find and address opportunities for improvement. Such efforts continuously focus on eliminating waste and increasing efficiency.
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