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Lean Manufacturing: the 10 key points for a “lean” company

Anyone who has been in contact with the business environment or university in recent years has heard, at least once, of “Lean Manufacturing”, especially in contexts of innovation of production systems or redesign of processes. But what is actually the Lean? Why do we keep hearing about it? And above all, how important is it for an entrepreneur to know this subject?

To answer these questions we must take a step back in time, arriving in Japan after World War II. The new relations between the United States and the Japanese country, brought into contact two very different cultures, showing the two sides the virtues and defects of life on the two shores of the North Pacific. It was these new sociocultural openings that allowed Taiichi Ohno, then a Toyota industrial engineer, to study the famous Fordist production system, based on mass production and economies of scale at the expense of flexibility, and to understand its strengths, but above all the inefficiencies.

After these studies, the Japanese engineer developed a real philosophy, later called ” Toyota Production System “, revolutionizing production processes, becoming a global model of efficiency and effectiveness.

This philosophy radically changed the Japanese industrial scenario of the time, bringing Toyota to productivity levels far superior to any manufacturing company in the rest of the world. By studying these surprising results, it was possible to outline the cornerstones of philosophy. At the base of Ohno’s approach, there was the intuition of separating the activities that add value to the product during production, from the activities that, instead, are not important for the end customer, becoming harmful to the processes, creating inefficiency and ineffectiveness. , becoming a source of “waste” and destined, therefore, to be eliminated. Ohno believed that the incorrect use of all the resources of a company, from raw materials to human resources, lean ), all the organizations that would otherwise be burdened and slow in the growth process.

But what are the characteristics that a lean enterprise must have to conform to Japanese philosophy? Obviously, the answer to this question could occupy entire academic journals, touching different managerial areas, from the corporate level to the operational level. You can try to summarize them in ten key points, offering synthetic insights, but which, with the right critical eye, could prove to be very effective.

Solve problems by focusing on the long-term:

The attention to results, in the long run, is a common element of all business strategies, but when it is in the lean, this principle takes on a deeper meaning. Ohno suggests sacrificing short-term results whenever it is possible to obtain more important long-term benefits. This vision is transformed in a concrete way, both in the usual consideration of the long-lasting effects of corporate decisions, but also in practice at an operational level: the Jidoka. This term indicates, using a good technical translation, a particular approach to the production process according to which every activity that highlights a problem, of any entity, must be interrupted to identify the anomalies and resolve them immediately. The interruption of production may seem like a drastic solution, which undoubtedly can bring inefficiencies in the short term, but, according to the Japanese philosophy, it brings decisively long advantages. The Japanese engineer also proposes a well-defined method for dealing with such problems, the Genchi Genbutsu”: To be effective in resolving inefficiencies it is necessary to” live “the process, to detect errors directly on the field through an external observer who can bring objective opinions. Finally, in order for the solutions proposed to be stable and lasting, it is necessary to fully understand the inefficiencies, grasping the real causes, using the “why” rule: getting to the root of the problems means being able to explain at least 5 intermediate events.

Producing in a continuous flow in ” pull ” logic:

The process of identifying and eliminating inefficiencies, according to Ohno’s vision, is strongly impeded by the interruption of the flow of activities and materials. Those that in technical jargon is called “buffers”, ie intermediate stocks of products and raw materials in the process of processing, do nothing but hide the problems and waste. To deal with this issue appropriately, the coupling of the production phases is suggested, physically eliminating the possibility of accumulating stocks between one phase and another. Surely, joining the stages of production is not an immediate action, just think of the differences in processing times and set-up times, or, even more simply, physical obstacles such as the size of the machinery. For this reason, the transition from decoupled production to continuous flow must be the subject of a slow and profound transformation process, accompanied by the diffusion of a corporate culture that proactively favors changes. To favor this transition, it is also necessary to look at the demand management strategy, adopting the so-called logic “pull “(English term that means, literally, pull). According to the principles of Ohno, in fact, it must be the effective demand to drive production, starting it through unit production orders and using the system called ” kanban “, only when the finished products are actually required by the market. This approach favors production without inventory, although it requires a significant level of flexibility, only reachable through a further improvement process that aims to minimize set-up times, considered one of the seven main players in the waste of resources (the ” Muda ” “) And the reduction of cycle times through the elimination of other non value-added activities.


level the question. In order to achieve the flexibility standards and to make continuous flow production sustainable, the physiological variability of the demand must be adequately addressed. It will, therefore, be essential to introduce tools that absorb variations by organizing work effectively. There are several instruments that perform this function, especially of an IT nature, all of which are joined by a single underlying logic: the orders that arrive at the production department are analyzed in terms of delivery times, priorities and necessary processes, with the related set- up and, through an accurate algorithmic processing, are placed in the productive system in such a way as to efficiently manage time and physical resources to be used.

Standardize the work:

The theme of variability management is addressed several times by Ohno. In addition to external changes, the Toyota engineer also highlights the negative effect of differences in the performance of the same activities by different operators. The theme of job standardization is also present in Fordist theories, but in the Japanese approach the goal is not the mere optimization of cycle times through the study of the elementary activities that make up the various jobs, but the final goal is to standardize output. A well-finished finished product facilitates the search for production problems and, at the same time, the search for total quality.

Visual control:

Pursuing the principle of “total quality”, as we have seen, creates, from the lean point of view, the need to highlight every problem. In this regard, in addition to the other methods mentioned above, Ohno introduces a completely innovative concept: visual control. To support the execution of every action during the processes, the new philosophy provides the support of a visual element that simplifies the procedures, making them more intuitive, and that, at the same time, makes it more immediate to report an error during their development. An example to clarify this concept is the process of reporting defective pieces, what the Japanese call ” Andon”: When an operator detects a faulty piece he must pull a rope, which is usually near his station, which will turn on a light that will illuminate the line. In this way, with a simple and immediate procedure, the other employees will receive a visual signal that will inform the need for immediate intervention, to solve the problem that caused the defect. Another example is the use of colors to indicate the priority of execution of the various orders.


All the concepts treated so far all have one point in common, which is then one of the roots of Lean philosophy: the pursuit of total quality. Obviously, in order to pursue this goal, it is necessary that in the choice of production systems priority is given to the reliability of the machines in terms of defects. In his opinion on machines, moreover, Ohno stressed the need for their support function to the staff: human resources should not be replaced but supported in the processes because the reasoning of man is a fundamental factor in making the production system stable and check it.

Grow your leaders:

The attention and importance of human resources are also reflected in the considerations on the choice of leaders and managers. The lean philosophy, in fact, provides that these figures must be selected internally, after a careful process of personal growth stimulated by the business context. According to Ohno, a company is only effective if its human resources are driven by the same culture and, to pursue this goal, it is important for team leaders and managers to grow up within the company so that they can become mentors and best practices guru and of the company philosophy, transmitting its ideals. In this perspective, therefore, one of the many aspects linked to growth is precisely that of training and the creation of teams that work by pursuing the values of lean value creation.

Cooperation with suppliers:

Adherence to the new philosophy must not remain an internal prerogative, but, in order for growth to be effective in the long term, it is necessary to involve its suppliers in the transformation process, considering them almost an extension of its organization. These considerations arise from the observation of the significant influence that the suppliers have on the performance of their organization with a view to the correct execution of production processes in a pull logic… To produce exactly what is required by the market at the exact moment in which the demand manifests itself, it is necessary that the suppliers pursue the principles of total quality, adopting the new philosophy as well. For this reason, it is necessary to establish long-term collaborative relationships and place them as a consultant, ready to guide them through the “lean” transformation.

A new decision-making process:

Ohno also carefully studied a review of the organizational decision-making process. In fact, he believed that the decisions should not be taken only by management, but that, according to the principle of “Nemawashi”, the operators, being the direct protagonists of the production processes, should also take part. This new solution is also essential in view of an increase in the speed of implementation of new projects: according to the Lean philosophy, in fact, the approval of new proposals, such as a change in operations, must be the result of an accurate and highly studied decision-making process, but followed by a quick and efficient practical implementation, with the optimization of transients.

Kaizen, continuous improvement:

Change is a constant for all Lean principles, becoming almost the main theme. For this reason, Ohno devoted much of his time to the topic, outlining the details of all phases of the performance improvement processes. At the base of his theories, there was the conviction that a series of small improvements to the processes were more effective than a few changes from the major impact, consistently with the search for stability within the organization. He also believed that the search for ever better results should be a continuous process that does not aim at the mathematical optimization of the system, but that, through a series of small transformations, leads the company to better and better performances over the long term. To support this approach, Ohno suggested that all employees should practice the ” Hansei”, An introspective reflection, during the course of normal activities, so as to identify the weaknesses of the process and try to provide autonomously possible solutions. These proposals can then be exposed to management during the so-called “Kaizen events”, periodic assemblies of all employees, in which each group proposes solutions and better for the entire organization, in line with the decision-making process envisaged by the lean philosophy.
The principles of Lean have been revisited several times over the last few years and adapted to different business contexts. One example, among many, is that of FIAT. Thanks to the implementation and revisitation of the lean principles through the ” World Class Manufacturing ” program, the management has been able to revive the Pomigliano plant, taking it as a symbol of the manufacturing inefficiency of Southern Italy as an emblem of industrial efficiency, surpassing levels productivity and quality of many German factories that have always held the record in this respect, receiving the award ” Automotive Lean Production Awards ” as the best establishment in Europe.

That of the Neapolitan plant is just one example of how to revisit the production processes and the company philosophy in Lean perspective can revive many contexts, re-launching its activities and creating significant development opportunities, demonstrating the importance of knowledge of this theme and the importance of its application.

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