If you’re not familiar with lean management principles yet, you should be. Even at the best of times, industrial professionals find themselves up against tight deadlines, slim margins, mechanical failures, workforce disruptions and other challenges.
Now that COVID-19 is part of everyday life, these challenges are only growing in magnitude. More than ever, manufacturing and supply chain companies need management structures that address fast-paced consumer trends, economic and environmental pressures and even modern pandemics.
What Is Lean Management?
Lean management is an offshoot of the core lean principles. The core lean methodology looks at three simple goals:
- Work to deliver value that customers will notice.
- Eliminate the waste of time, materials and anything else that doesn’t add value.
- Strive to make continuous improvements to your work processes.
The pioneers of lean management imagined a system where continuous improvement and respect for people existed in harmony. This humanistic approach is a way to implement meaningful corporate change, including process improvements within a facility.
Leaders in a lean management structure facilitate the following steps:
- Finding challenges and defining objectives using input from frontline workers.
- Inspiring an environment of continuous improvement and productive communication.
- Emphasizing teamwork and synergy rather than competition across the enterprise.
Continuous improvement lies within the heart of lean methodologies, but you can’t enhance a process that’s ill-defined or inconsistent. You can best understand lean management and continuous improvements through the lens of standard work.
How Standard Work and Lean Management Work Together
The first part of the lean management approach involves standardization. First, managers define roles and process ownership clearly. They take an active role in training incoming workers on the current standard work practices.
The second part of this approach requires communication. By clearly defining roles and emphasizing process ownership, lean management creates an environment where the exchange of ideas is valued. Those closest to the facility’s value-adding activities, like machine operators, bring forward new ideas for process improvements. Managers evaluate the process improvements and then communicate the new standard work practices throughout the enterprise.
The result of lean management is a more empowered and engaged workforce, leadership that’s in better touch with the realities on the ground and a constantly-evolving but well-communicated set of standard work definitions and procedures. Most importantly, it’s a flexible and resilient framework that can adapt quickly to unexpected challenges and implement timely changes.
What Are the Benefits of Lean Management?
We’ve seen how a lean management structure emphasizes communication, mindfulness of waste and continuous improvements to standard work. How, specifically, do companies benefit from this? Here are some of the ways:
1. Less Waste and Greater Focus
Cutting unnecessary waste, including materials and processes, is great for uncovering hidden financial savings and improving margins. It also helps renew the company’s focus on value-adding activities instead of dealing with material waste or losing time on redundant or outdated workflows.
2. Enterprise-Wide Efficiency Improvements
As mentioned, standard work and process ownership are two of the most important ideas within the lean philosophy. By working to deliver value from the customer’s perspective, professionals in manufacturing and supply chains contribute to overall more efficient enterprises and help their department work harmoniously with the other links in the supply chain.
3. New Methodologies and Technology
Lean management encourages the adoption of smarter methodologies and processes. This idea generally takes the form of a pull system, where work gets generated only when there’s a demand for the product. Technology, like enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and machine learning, can help managers achieve better forecasting and other lean management goals.
4. Reduced Costs and Smarter Use of Resources
One of the benefits of the pull system and other lean methodologies is a reduction in overhead costs like inventory storage, labor and machine runtime. By performing key practices only when demand dictates, organizations save time and energy costs, not to mention reducing strain on essential equipment.
How Is Lean Manufacturing Changing in the Wake of COVID-19?
Lean management is vital today because the market and the world are volatile places. Manufacturing and supply chain companies are even more essential than usual, but they need adaptable leadership and enterprise-wide flexibility to roll with the punches.
COVID-19 is a major stressor on enterprises that don’t have lean management in their DNA. It’s also a major opportunity to make future-proofing changes to an organization in need of an overhaul. One example is the now-flourishing work-from-home culture. Working from home took years to catch on in the United States, but the novel coronavirus forced the issue. As it turns out, companies have been hurting their productivity and profitability for years by not exploring telecommuting seriously before now.
COVID-19 is forcing the lean management issue in other ways, too. A post-coronavirus world is still one that needs to address the looming crisis of climate change. Wise resource management — of time, material resources and employee well being — is more crucial now than ever. Lean management’s focus on waste reduction plays a major role in credibly addressing global warming in the coming years.
Achieving leaner business models and a more rapid pace of improvement means wasting fewer resources over time and keeping the ecological footprints of our industries small.
In many cases, investments in automation may also serve lean management and production, both during and after COVID-19, and as the world grapples with ecological changes. Lean automation helps companies of all sizes operate more efficiently and conscientiously, along with improving accuracy and reducing costs and lead times. It also allows employers to transition workers into more valuable roles. This shift is especially vital now, with industrial professionals eyeing reskilling as one of the top ways to survive talent shortages.
Robotic or remote-guided technologies may also help companies enforce social distancing without undermining productivity. Many food processing plants, for example, weren’t set up with COVID-19 in mind, and now find themselves scrambling to redesign facilities and workflows.
Implementing lean management today means being better prepared for a wide range of eventualities tomorrow. That includes contingencies for working under restricted conditions or with a reduced workforce.
Lean Management Can Keep the World Turning
Standard work doesn’t just apply to standard times. Amid social unrest and other uncertainty, lean management is an ideal framework that companies can use to define challenges and implement and communicate changes quickly in response.
Change and disruption are inevitable and seems only to accelerate. Our institutions and companies need lean, humanistic management now more than ever.