Lean Supply Chain Practice Expert Thinks You Should Use

Have you ever wondered how to implement lean manufacturing in the supply chain successfully? In this guest commentary, Professor J. Paul Dittmann is here with us. Before entering academia, Paul was a Vice President at the Whirlpool Corporation. Then, he brings decades of experience and will show you how to make a lean supply chain works.

Lean concepts originated in the 1950s in Japan and developed and matured in Toyota factories over several decades. The Lean philosophy first reached the shores of the United States in the 1980s with a few pioneering international businesses like John Deere and Harley Davidson and then exploded into U.S. manufacturing in the 1990s. From there, Lean project management escaped the confines of the factory with the Lean philosophy now being used throughout the supply chain.

Many companies have their versions of Lean that closely follow their fundamental principles, such as the Kenco Operating System or the Honeywell Operating System. Some of the tools and concepts of Lean are described below.

1. A3
One way this “keep it simple doctrine” occurs in Lean operations management is through the use of A3 summaries. A3 refers to a European paper size that is roughly equivalent to an American 11-inch by 17-inch tabloid-sized paper. Lean advocates use the A3 format to force conciseness in summarizing a problem and the environment surrounding it.

2. 5S
The“5S” refers to a methodology and mindset that ensures that all areas are neat, and clean, with everything in its place for better customer service. Although it varies, the five S’s usually stand for “sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain.” A number of warehouse operations and inventory control add a sixth “S” for safety, a “6S” process. Six sigma program also adopts the 5S concept.

3. Total Employee Involvement
The real secret of Lean is that it creates a learning organization that focuses on continuous improvement (kaizen). Lean takes a full commitment from the top and full involvement from the bottom. One company chose several “lean champions” from among the hourly associates in DC and asked them to gather improvement ideas from their peers. Lean champions also led “5-Why” sessions. In these sessions, the problem is identified, and then the group asks “why” five times to get at its root cause.

4. Standard Work and Making Problems Visible
Some Lean advocates say that there can be no kaizen (continuous improvement) without standardization. All work needs to be rigorously documented. That ensures continuity of improvements and makes deviations more visible. The three-step process of “standardize, measure, and improve” has standard work at its root. 

5. Management Walk-Abouts
Some years ago, MBWA (management by wandering around) was all the rage, and for good reason. It worked. Managers need to get up, and get out and about, and talk to people face to face. It’s the only way to understand the problems and the mood of the organization. It’s important to do this with a set of good questions, such as “do you see anything we could do better”, or “is your area ahead of or behind schedule?” The millennials especially may need some special encouragement to give up electronics and talk to other humans.

6. Visual Management
Lean operations are visual operations, designed to promote employee involvement. As one warehouse professional said, “How can you expect your team to perform if they don’t know the score.”? Lean operations place charts and graphs everywhere. Andon (red, yellow, green) lights visually show the status of mechanical operations. One company mounted a large four by the eight-foot poster displaying a fishbone diagram that focused on a chronic problem existing in the warehouse. All associates were invited to use post-in-notes to comment on various aspects of the problem.

7. Total Productive Maintenance
With TPM (total productive maintenance), associates who work with equipment are also responsible for routine maintenance. This not only promotes employee involvement and ownership but also reduces unexpected downtime. As one associate said, “Who knows more about how your car sounds: you or the mechanic in the shop? It’s the same with the equipment we use every day.” 

8. Value Stream Mapping
Value stream mapping (VSM) helps identify value-added versus non-valued activities in a process and is used as a vehicle to eliminate waste. It requires visually mapping a process and then asking a group of employees/associates to identify opportunities for improvement, as well as non-valued added activities to eliminate. VSM can ensure that there is “quality at the source”, i.e. things are done right the first time and that there are no rework loops. VSM can be applied to any process, and almost never fails to identify savings of at least 20% plus, according to one expert highly experienced at using them.

Lean is a lot about total employee involvement in a continuous improvement effort. So, you shouldn’t rush to implement the advanced Lean tools. Because, “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Then, fundamental concepts like 5S, total employee involvement, standard work, visual management, and management walkabouts should be in place before implementing more sophisticated concepts such as value-stream mapping.

Professor J. Paul Dittmann is the Executive Director of the Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Tennessee.

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Last review and update: July 5, 2022
About the Author and Editor:
Ben Benjabutr is the author and editor of Supply Chain Opz. He holds an M.Sc. in Logistics Management with 10+ years of experience. You can contact him via e-mail or Twitter.