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Converting to a lean manufacturing mode

What does it mean to convert to a lean manufacturing mode? Let's look at some of the basic meanings of this manufacturing philosophy, and briefly discuss some ways of converting to it or implementing it.

Lean manufacturing and lean production are also known as lean thinking. This implies that lean manufacturing starts in the brain. Nice point, you might be thinking, what doesn't start in the brain? The point is that there isn't some kind of scientific formula that can convert a company to a lean manufacturing mode overnight. There isn't some kind of scientific formula that can convert a company to a lean manufacturing mode in a year, or in several years. Converting to a lean manufacturing mode is essentially an imaginative and creative process guided by the intellect. Its basic principle is that a company becomes increasingly economical and more productive through the process of cutting down on waste.

Waste, in the sense of a lean manufacturing mode, can be just about anything a company is doing that doesn't directly grow, improve, and inspire the company (and the company's partners and allies in the process). Waste, in the sense of a lean manufacturing mode, can be of the obvious physical kind, such as wasting material, and it can also be of the less obvious kind, such as wasting manpower, whether it be physical or mental. A lean manufacturing mode is a mode that takes small steps, day by day, in distinguishing, confronting, and eliminating these diverse forms of wastage.

The keys here are "small steps" and "day by day." We'll draw up a simple picture to make the process more clear. Let's say that our company consists of Jim, Jim's pencil, and Jim's sheets of paper. Jim's daily task is to write down the activity of a flock of bird's nesting in a tree outside the window. We take a closer look at Jim and notice that his sentences have a lot of white space between them. Furthermore, we notice that Jim presses down with unnecessary force when he writes, which tends to waste pencil lead. Finally, we notice that Jim is easily distracted from his task because his window view includes a bikini carwash across the street.

Let's go ahead and convert our company to a lean manufacturing mode. First, we try to get Jim to write his sentences a little closer together. It's hard for Jim at first, as spacing his sentences liberally is a habit by now. But we remind Jim of our new standard day by day, and Jim makes daily progress. Soon Jim's sentences are spaced just perfectly and we're saving ten sheets of paper per day.

Our next step is a little harder. We must get Jim not to press so darn hard with his pencil. Now it's a matter of getting Jim's hand muscles re-coordinated so that he writes lightly instead of heavily. Again, we work day by day, and again Jim makes daily progress until he's writing like whisper instead of a pant. And, in the process, we save ten pencils per week.

Finally, we must somehow take care of that distracting carwash. This is our most difficult task so far, as it's not really a matter of teaching Jim anything; the human eye is distracted easily and the human mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time. So, we buy out the car wash and turn it into something less exotic or we build an attractive wall or whatever. We make it easier for Jim to do his job, and soon Jim's descriptions of the birds' behavior are more detailed and exhaustive than ever before.

This, in a nutshell, is the idea behind lean manufacturing. Lean manufacturing even in a simple situation, even in a ridiculously simple situation (such as the one presented above), is a difficult business, requiring much thought, time, patience, and investment, both financially and personally. Converting to a lean manufacturing mode means that a company really must function as a team, from top to bottom. Converting to a lean manufacturing mode will differ in style and substance from company to company. Much has been written about the lean manufacturing philosophy, and it's up to a company's leaders to do their homework and figure out a plan for implementing this complicated but rewarding business model.

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