What Does Lean Manufacturing Mean?

Lean manufacturing methods focus on the customer as the most important part of the business. The methods maximize value and minimize waste, with value defined as an item or feature which the customer wants enough to pay for it. Everything else is waste and must be eliminated from the manufacturing process.

  1. Identification

    • Lean manufacturing goes hand-in-hand with the concept of just-in-time manufacturing, producing only what is needed exactly when it is needed. The idea of lean manufacturing was developed at Toyota in Japan, in a philosophy that grew from the Toyota production system. Many of the words in lean manufacturing terminology are Japanese, such as takt, which expresses the preference of pulling products through the manufacturing system by customer demand rather than pushing them through any sort of scheduling not completely related to demand.

    Function

    • All employees in a lean manufacturing company are expected to examine their jobs for ways to eliminate waste and to continually improve the processes. This concept of continuous improvement is called kaizen. In addition, company management is expected to have great respect for the employees and to continuously look for new ways to make their jobs more satisfying and empowering.

    Significance

    • There are two common approaches to lean manufacturing. One continually identifies and eliminates waste, or muda, to improve quality while reducing production time and cost. The other approach is to identify and eliminate unevenness, or mura, in the manufacturing process. This is the approach Toyota emphasizes, which improves the smooth flow of work rather than focusing on waste reduction.

    Potential

    • Lean manufacturing is an environmentally-friendly procedure. Companies reduce energy and water usage when they have more efficient production, and they also use fewer material resources. In addition, the process produces less hazardous and solid waste and emits fewer pollutants to air and water. These results tend to be unintentional side effects when the company works on cost-effective measures. Lean manufacturing methods have great potential in this area since management often protests that focusing on environmental-quality improvements is too expensive.

    Considerations

    • In February and March of 2009, Toyota is closing all 12 of its manufacturing plants in Japan for 11 days because lack of demand means the factories cannot run in a lean manner. Adhering to the lean manufacturing ideals has kept Toyota more financially sound than many of its competitors, but it can cause employee lay-offs because the company will not continue production when sales do not support it. Closing the plants temporarily has the goal of not eliminating jobs.

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