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Lean manufacturing - or lean people?

Author : By Frederika Roberts

01 July 2010

EXCLUSIVE The Jarvis Johnson team says lean manufacturing isn't so much about WHAT but about HOW and WHY

Kaizen, 6 Sigma, 5S...or empowerment, engagement, pride?

Lean manufacturing isn't so much about WHAT but about HOW and WHY.

Nick Houghton, General Manager of Freshcut Foods, explained that lean methodologies are embedded into chilled food manufacturing, due to the short shelf-life of the products. "The formal introduction of lean manufacturing focuses people's minds."

"Lean is just another set of tools," says Bob Hartley, Interim Operations Manager. "If you drop the consultant-speak and talk about making the factory look tidy, making performance visible, changing machines over quickly and training to do this like F1 pit engineers, staff understand."

Peter Barber, interim operations manager, talked about a past assignment "Output came at an enormous cost; huge product giveaway and packaging waste cost the business £300k per annum. [...] Effective and strong communication was paramount. Continual staff coaching improved morale as people had a feeling of worth and belonging. We created a 'clean as you go policy'; simplicity is always best!"

One of our clients echoed this: "Lean Manufacturing is about empowerment, involvement and communication. It's about sharing performance and improvements. You have to go back to basics - 'What was the machine originally intended for?' Make people's lives easy - e.g. why walk 20 yards to find out information that could be on people's desks?"

"If you look at lean a number of years ago, there were a lot of independent initiatives; lean puts them under one umbrella to drive productivity and profitability" adds Nick Houghton.

Abdullah Khan, Site Manager at Askeys (Silver Spoon), illustrated the turnaround there: "12 months ago, we'd had 3 lost-time incidents in a short space of time. The site was on BRC B and on PIU double-amber and was falling short on profitability. The management team embarked on a 6-month improvement project, supported by Coriolis consultants. We made an impassioned appeal to the workforce on safety, quality and cost. Now, we have been accredited to supply M&S, taken on significant new business, productivity has risen by 20% and we have achieved BRC A Grade and PIU green status. We are proud to have been awarded the ROSPA order of distinction and we have passed the Coriolis 6-month sustainability test. Today, I look forward to a very bright future."

One Director commented that in his business, the benefits of an established lean manufacturing culture were obvious. He has a flexible, highly skilled workforce. "Morale is high and positive feedback was received from all auditors on the attitude and involvement of all staff in all audits. Staff turnover and absenteeism are very low."

Peter Barber commented on his earlier assignment: "We created a different working environment; people were given and took ownership for their work areas. As a result, we had better informed staff, with pride in their work and the business. Financial performance improved by over £215k pa."
Of course, there are risks. "If not used carefully they [lean manufacturing techniques] can turn people into automatons" says Bob Hartley.

Abdullah Khan explained one of the drawbacks. "We have tried to work with the workforce, but there is an element that feels that communication has been one way. Although we wouldn't have achieved the pace of change without doing that, employee surveys have shown we need to improve engagement."

One of our contacts warns: "You need to retain the right to manage. People may have high expectations. Some managers may feel threatened and stifle ideas. You need clear management and leadership; the whole leadership team have to be behind the drive and be clear about their goals, i.e. short-term cost-savings or long-term culture change?"

So, lean manufacturing is about "hearts and minds", empowerment, involvement of the workforce, sharing of ideas, clear and open communication. There are risks and costs involved, but, as one of our interviewees commented "It's definitely worthwhile. After all, if you haven't got a business full of people who are focused on costs, you haven't got a business".

* Frederika Roberts is operations director, Jarvis Johnson and joint managing director, Jarvis Johnson Expert Solutions

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