Is Lean Manufacturing Just About Waste Reduction?

I have been involved in Lean Manufacturing in one form or another since the 80s working for various first tier suppliers to the automotive How Do Industrial Engineers Benefit Society before branching out to other industries as a consultant. People’s perception of what lean is has changed quite a lot over the years, and the reputation of lean has been damaged many times over by failed or poor implementations.
My own perception of lean has changed also, as a young engineer I have gone for the glory of quick wins in my areas of responsibility to show how clever I was. As I have grown into the role I have realized that these implementations and changes tended to revert, that the savings that were expected were not realized long term and I had to think why.
I looked around at the many consultancies that are offering to implement lean manufacturing and have to pass comment on what they consider lean to be. If you read their definitions and their sales pitch as to what they can offer you will see that nearly all focus very heavily on elimination or reduction of waste. They can reduce your organizations costs significantly by identifying and removing your waste adding many percentage points to your profit. They illustrate these improvements with up to date case studies and happy business owners posing in front of their new BMWs that they brought with the increased profits. Who would not want to hire them, it sounds like free money for all!
But you also read about the many failures and the implementations where things revert back to the old ways within a few months, or even worse. These “failures” give lean a bad name and relegate Lean back into the “Fad of the year” category along with all of the other business improvement ideas that the management try to implement.
But most of these consultancies are falling into the same trap I did when I first started out, thinking that lean is about an inward focus on waste reduction. It is not! The first point of lean is “what is value in the eyes of the customer?” You have to identify what is valuable to the customer, what features and services do they really want, when do they want them, what price will they pay?
The attack on waste (wrongly) assumes that you are tackling the issues that prevent you from delivering value to the customer, some of what you will do will be right but often you remove flexibility and speed from the system by focusing only on cutting out costs. What then happens when the customer demand increases, or something fails within your company or your supplier, you end up putting back labor and reverting to old processes to tackle the issues.
Most lean implementations fail to define value, they fail to identify the full value stream and work out how to make that value flow at the pull of the customer. They also generally fail to involve everyone and make it part of the companies culture to continually work on striving for perfection.
If you implement lean by defining customer value and making it flow at the pull of the customer, you will automatically tackle the wastes within your system Plastic Business Ideas and you will be left with a customer focused, sustainable, self improving business that will flourish rather than one that will struggle to compete!
In conclusion lean is not just about waste, sure it is a major element, but it is not the most important. The reduction and elimination of waste comes about from a focus on value and flow. Without working on the true philosophy your successes will be short lived.

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