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Home > About Us > News and Articles > Advanced Lean Techniques


By David Dixon (as printed in Fabricating and Metalworking)
In previous columns (archived at www.fandmmag.com) we have tried first to dispel the notion that lean techniques and other world-class improvement tools are not applicable in a job shop. We addressed the requirements for leading the lean implementation and overcoming resistance to change; we surveyed the lean tool kit and we looked at demand-pull techniques and lean plant layout in more detail.

In this article, we will suggest that even with a basic lean infrastructure in place, there will be more to do—more opportunities to remove waste, drive productivity up, reduce lead time and inventory, and improve quality. This will require an ever-increasing level of sophistication in the use of lean techniques.

What follows is, perhaps, a look into your future. It is a longer-term vision of where you will want to take your business if you are just starting the lean journey or a set of "next steps" if you are at a plateau.

Getting Started

Every successful lean implementation rests on a foundation of capabilities and disciplines forged from lean principles and the application of basic techniques. Figure 1 (also seen in previous columns) depicts the lean tool kit. Many of these tools are fundamental to our success, and we put them to work early. Examples are value stream mapping, fast setup, focused layouts, pull systems, standard work, line/load balancing, error proofing and 5S housekeeping.

Working from value-stream maps and market-driven performance-improvement needs, projects will be selected and executed to set up lean pilot cells, to elevate capacity at constraint operations and to remove non-value-added time. One by one, these projects will bring us to significantly increased levels of profitability and customer service. At some point we are flowing small lots through cells to a demand-driven takt time.

It may be two to four years before we realize the full benefits of our basic implementation. Eventually, progress will be stalled out by realities embedded in process equipment and tools that drive us to batching rather than flowing one piece at a time.

Common examples are paint systems, plating systems, heat-treating ovens and any equipment that drives a lot size greater than one owing to a long, complex setup. Further productivity improvement may also be limited by process technology requiring a full-time man/machine interface; that is, certain machines require full-time attendance.

As we face the "brutal reality" of these issues, we must consciously decide if we want to take them on. Some companies have done so, others are beginning. There are good reasons to consider this challenge.

Approaching the One-Piece Flow

There is magic in the one-piece flow. It represents the ultimate lean system, where we have the best chance of minimizing lead time and cost. Throughput is fast and predictable, and problems are immediately visible. People are ideally positioned to solve problems, balance workloads, make good decisions and continuously improve. With this in mind, every effort should be made to remove impediments to this fundamental lean objective. There are many ways in which a mature lean organization will work to break down the obstacles. We will discuss three very important techniques here.

Right-sized equipment. Enormous amounts of waste are associated with the need to remove product from a cell to perform painting, plating, heat treating, deburring or other operations. To combat this waste, many companies are developing smaller pieces of equipment that are sized specifically for the geometry and the volume of work being run in the cell. Sometimes the solutions are fairly easy and inexpensive to develop; in other cases they are quite difficult and expensive. One company developed a CNC-controlled, portable plating machine to support cellular operations and eliminate a central plating system. The equipment runs a wide variety of product and requires virtually no setup.

The company built several of these machines at a cost of $250,000 each!

Advanced lean thinkers will understand the pay-off provided by these decisions. And because commercial solutions are often unavailable, they design and build their own.

One-Touch Setups. Setup time is another formidable enemy of a one-piece flow. Early setup reduction efforts often enable us to flow work in much smaller lots, but setup time still drives us to a transfer batch size considerably greater than one. At this juncture, we will need to approach zero setup time. To achieve this goal, especially in a job-shop setting, will require truly innovative thinking and equipment/tooling combinations that allow an operator to accomplish a setup with a single motion.
Here again, we will probably not find off-the-shelf solutions. Creative design/build projects will be required.

Autonomation. This technology takes us to a new level of productivity by separating the man from the machine. It is assumed that we are already running a one-piece flow, multiple operators are working in a cell and we are seeking to improve the output per labor hour. This is accomplished by automating the machine cycles wherever possible. Operators then load material or parts, initiate the machine cycle and rotate to another workstation while the machine does its work. Manpower requirements are reduced by the amount of non-value-added wait time eliminated by automating the machine cycles.

Many commercial equipment builders provide this kind of automation, but custom applications will eventually be needed. Again, you will probably have to design and build your own.

How to Develop Advanced Techniques

Efforts to develop advanced solutions are usually focused on a set of improvement objectives associated with a given value stream. These objectives will give rise to performance specifications for projects to develop right-sized equipment, one-touch setup and autonomation. Other advanced techniques will also be selected and implemented as needed to lean out the value stream.

At this point we adopt an R&D mentality. We will search the literature, benchmark, brainstorm and collaborate with equipment, tooling and automation suppliers to develop concept solutions. Stand-alone experimental prototypes will be used to test the concepts, and model lines/cells will be used to prove them out.

Patience and determination are critical. As in all breakthrough thinking and related development, the sought-after solution seems always just out of reach. Only the persistent reach their goals.


Industry Week magazine's 2006 survey of North American companies reveals that only about 20 percent of the participants have yet to begin a formal continuous improvement effort, and most of them are using lean as the primary improvement vehicle. This suggests that in the not-distant future, most companies will be enjoying the benefits of a basic lean implementation. The "low hanging fruit" will be mostly plucked, and the performance levels of entire industries will be significantly better.

From a competitive standpoint, lean will have become a commodity. Any competitive edge will then have to come from the mastery of advanced lean techniques. Fortunately, the techniques discussed above, coupled with other initiatives (e.g., Six Sigma, world-class systems and resource management, and administrative lean) provide ample opportunity for continuing performance gains.