3 Lean Manufacturing Techniques to Contain Costs in a Crisis

August 20, 2020 | Article

By Lyle Henning

As manufacturers face continuing insecurity and volatility, even more are considering common lean manufacturing practices to contain costs and run more efficiently. If you’re weighing new strategies yourself, know that some will be effective while others could hurt your business in the long-term.

Don’t sacrifice next year for this quarter. The lean manufacturing methods you implement now should serve to bolster your business today and into the future. Consider how the following strategies could help you contain costs and run lean, yet strong, through this and any crisis.

Learn how to contain costs and manage cash flow even during times of uncertainty.

Strategy #1: Strategically implement technology and automation.

Strategically implementing technology and automation in key areas of your business is great for short- and long-term success. The operative word here is “strategically.” For every new technology, there must be purpose, management and training to ensure results and warrant the investment.

Of course, technology has an upfront cost, but it’s an investment that has already become essential to business survival. Furthermore, inefficient and limited legacy technology drains profits and growth potential for manufacturers daily.

With newer technology, you’ll run more efficient processes and can better allocate your staff to optimize their productivity, skills and abilities. You can use this technology to overcome the common industry challenge of finding qualified staff, and manage the new challenge of running a limited workforce due to COVID-19 restrictions. In essence, if you find yourself running a lean workforce out of necessity rather than preference, technology can help in both physical and digital processes.

  • Use robots and cobots on your production line to fulfill tasks or work alongside employees.
  • Use automated machines for redundant tasks like turning and packaging. This has the added benefit of reducing common workplace injuries.
  • Automate runs for large batches of parts where possible.
  • Automate simple activities like managing lights. This has the potential added benefit of saving on energy costs.
  • Use sensors and software to track, manage and view inventory to reduce manual entry and error, and to have real-time visibility on your inventory.
  • Automate manual data processes like input, manipulation and calculation with software that intelligently recognizes, processes and populates relevant information.
  • Automate processes from website order to work order creation, scheduling and picking.
  • Use analytics to examine and optimize your operations.
  • Integrate software and applications to reduce manual processes.
  • Use cloud-based software to automate workflows and processes, reducing manual administrative work and increasing accuracy and speed.
  • Use cloud services and real-time data to make decisions faster and have a more immediate view of your business.

Strategy #2: Reduce lead time.

The benefits of reducing lead time go beyond accelerating production. It can greatly reduce waste in your production process and help you retain customers, both of which are vital in lean times and key to staying competitive. To reduce lead time, focus on optimizing the actual touch time on a part.

If you map a part’s journey from order to shipment, it’s likely there’s more downtime than touch time. Much of the journey is spent waiting between operations or phases. This may not seem like a big deal, however:

  • Downtime involves a lot of wasted movement. Parts get picked up, moved and even damaged.
  • Errors tend to occur after a part has been waiting and moves to the next operation.
  • With long production windows, a customer may change or cancel mid-production, wasting parts and labor.
  • You may lose business if customers get faster production estimates from your competitors.

To minimize wait time between operations, perform an assessment of your operations. Analyze the timing of the queue for parts and how you might optimize it, minimize it and ensure readiness at each next phase of the operation. Identify common points of error or delay and strategize to eliminate them. Furthermore, consider one of the following tactics:

One-piece workflow: In a batch workflow, if a customer orders 50 parts, the first operation will make all 50 parts from start to finish before they move on to the next operation. In a one-piece workflow, you move each piece as soon as it is finished to the next operation. Therefore, if an error is found downstream or if a customer cancels, you won’t have to scrap all 50 parts. This eliminates downtime for both the parts and the operators. It also reduces waste because you remove a window in which parts can get damaged.

Cellular manufacturing: With this strategy, you cross-train employees to perform multiple operations and take a product from start to finish. For instance, instead of having three operators perform three tasks, one individual would perform all three tasks within an area that contains the necessary stations or machines. This eliminates waiting time, and it also eliminates waste because there’s no wait window and the operator will see if a part is out of spec right away.

Manufacturing automation: As mentioned, technology and automation can greatly aid a lean strategy, and it’s a great solution if you’re trying to reduce lead time. Automated machines and robots can perform single functions or multiple functions faster and with fewer errors, and you can take employees off redundant tasks to optimize their time.

Strategy #3: Implement 5S lean methodology.

The 5S lean methodology is popular in manufacturing. The five stages are: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain. The goal of this methodology is to maintain clean and organized workstations according to a set standard. This way, anyone could walk into a workstation and know where things are, be able to identify missing items and have essential tools within reach. When the area is clean and standardized, any staff member could approach it and begin work immediately or locate the item they need. Unnecessary tools aren’t cluttering the area, and less time is spent searching, organizing and readying the station for operations.

This approach is helpful at any time, whether you’re facing the challenges of a crisis or not. Efficiency is critical for manufacturers, and the 5S system optimizes employee time and productivity. Whether you’re running a smaller staff with shorter hours or you’re creating workstation standards for full-capacity operations, this technique will improve efficiency and save time, effectively containing unnecessary costs.

Lean Manufacturing for Today and Tomorrow
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of lean strategies. But these three methodologies will make a difference in your business today, tomorrow and for years to come. Improving efficiency and optimizing the resources you have always serves to strengthen core operations, and these measures will help you remain competitive and relevant while serving the short-term need of containing costs.

Efficiency is a key strategy for containing costs. We put together a guide on containing cost and managing cash flow in a time of uncertainty.

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