What Is Lean Manufacturing?


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Lean manufacturing addresses one of the worst things that can happen to any enterprise: waste. To not take full advantage of all of your resources is to lose efficiencies and, in so doing, stunt production. These neglected resources include everything from manufacturing project management tools, to the skills of the staff members.

Industry is, of course, rife with waste. Whether it’s idle workers or unused materials that cannot be recycled or repurposed, the results are the same: a drag on productivity. This insistence on eliminating waste is where the idea of lean as a management system developed.

Called lean manufacturing or lean production, the truth is that the lessons learned from this methodology can be universally applied. Lean manufacturing principles can help your business processes gain efficiencies and, as a result, become more effective and competitive in any marketplace. So, even if you’re not in the manufacturing business, you can still learn something from this methodology that changed the world.

how to build a lean manufacturing system

An Overview of Lean Manufacturing

Lean is a methodology to reduce waste in a manufacturing system without sacrificing productivity. The customer defines what is of value in terms of what they would pay for the product or service. Through lean management, what adds value becomes clear by removing or reducing everything that doesn’t add value.

History of Lean Manufacturing

The idea of lean manufacturing was first championed by the Toyota Production System and called lean in the 1990s. This coincided with the growth of Toyota from a small company to one of the world’s most successful seller of motor vehicles.

But lean as an idea that encompasses reduction of waste goes back to Benjamin Franklin, who wrote about it in his Poor Richard’s Almanack. He noted that avoiding unnecessary costs could be more profitable than increasing sales. This idea, and other relevant concepts appear in his essay “The Way to Wealth.”

The idea grew into what mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor called scientific management, which analyzes and synthesizes workflow to improve efficiencies. In his book Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911, he codified the process.

The term lean as a principle of manufacturing was first used by John Krafcik in the article “Triumph of the Lean Production System,” which was published in 1988 and based on his MIT Sloan School of Management master’s thesis. Krafcik worked as a quality engineer for a joint venture between Toyota and GM in California before he earned his master’s.

How to Practice Lean Manufacturing

The general meaning of lean is that it consists of a set of tools that help to identify and eliminate waste. That waste can be created through an overburden and unevenness in workloads. The removal of waste from any system improves quality and production time, while reducing cost.

Some of those tools include:

  • SMED (single-minute exchange of die, which is fast way to move from one manufacturing process to another)
  • Value stream mapping
  • 5S (a workplace organization methodology)
  • Kanban boards (visualizes workflow)
  • Poka-yoke (error-proofing)
  • Total productive maintenance (improves integrity and quality of manufacturing process)
  • Rank order clustering (production flow analysis)
  • Single-point scheduling
  • Redesigning working cells
  • Multi-process handing
  • Control charts (for checking workloads)

Another way to approach lean manufacturing is called the Toyota Way, as it was developed by the company. Here the focus is on improving workflow to remove unevenness as opposed to wastefulness. Kanban is essential for this type of lean management.

kanban for lean manufacturing
A kanban board in ProjectManager.com—Click to learn more!

The goals for both approaches are the same, but the means to achieve it are slightly different. In the Toyota Way, improving workflow is the goal, but in so doing waste is also eliminated naturally. Proponents of this process state it takes a system-wide perspective as opposed to one solely on waste removal.

Principles of Lean

Some principles that are shared by both methods of lean include:

  • Pull processing
  • Perfect first-time quality
  • Waste minimization
  • Continuous improvement
  • Flexibility
  • Building and maintaining a long-term relationship with suppliers (learn more about vendor management)
  • Automation
  • Load leveling
  • Production flow and visual control

But Toyota maintains that lean’s main thrust is not the tools, but the reduction of three types of waste: non-value-adding work, in Japanese called muda; overburden, muri; and unevenness, mura.

It is through these means that lean helps productivity. It simplifies operational structure to understand, perform and manage the work environment. To do all this at the same time, Toyota applies a mentoring methodology called Senpai and Kohai, which translates to senior and junior. This fosters lean thinking throughout an organizational structure from the group up.

Types of Waste in Lean Manufacturing

Waste is not a simple concept. If approached simply, then the reduction is going to be limited. In order for lean project management to be most effective, waste is defined in three specific ways.

  • Mura: Unevenness, or waste due to fluctuations in demand. This can come from customer requests, but it can also be due to an organization adding new services and thus additional work.
  • Muri: Overburden, or waste due to trying to do too much at once. This has to do with resource allocation. When too few people try to do too much work, they often waste time switching from on task to another.
  • Muda: Non-value-adding work, or process waste. This waste comes as a byproduct of something else. Think about three things: value, work that adds immediate value for a customer; necessary waste, which are supporting activities that add value; and unnecessary waste, activities that don’t add value. Therefore, lean maximizes value, minimizes necessary waste and removes unnecessary waste altogether.

Goals and Strategy of Lean Manufacturing

Reducing or eliminating waste is essential to lean project management, but the ends that it serves can be different depending on who is asked. Some say it is increasing company profit while others maintain its improvements are solely to benefit the customer. Some common goals follow.

  • Improve Quality: To stay competitive, companies can’t be complacent, but must meet customers’ changing wants and needs. Therefore, processes must be designed to meet their expectations and requirements. Adopting total quality management can make quality improvement a priority.
  • Eliminate Waste: Waste is bad for costs, deadlines and resources. It takes without adding any value to a product or service.
  • Reduce Time: Time is money, as the adage goes, and wasting time is therefore wasting money. Reducing the time it takes to start and finish a project is going to create value by adding efficiencies. Learn and apply some time management strategies.
  • Reduce Total Costs: Money is saved when a company is not wasting time, materials and personnel on unnecessary activities. Overproduction also adds to storage and warehousing costs. Understanding the triple constraint is the first step to understanding cost management.

In terms of the strategic elements of lean, there are four different notions of lean that have been identified. However, there can be more elements.

  1. Being lean is lean as a fixed state or goal
  2. Becoming lean is lean as a continuous change process
  3. Doing lean or toolbox lean is lean as a set of tools or methods
  4. Lean thinking is lean as philosophy

When implementing a lean project management system, there are three basic steps to take.

  1. Design a simple manufacturing system
  2. Keep looking for ways to improve (there always are)
  3. Continuously improve design

Pros and Cons of Lean Manufacturing

Like any method, there are benefits and detriments to lean manufacturing. Some people criticize not lean itself but how people implement it. For example, they fault a focus on tools and methodologies rather than on the philosophy and culture of lean. They say it’s not a la carte but a systemic approach to project management.

Justify It to the Staff

Lean manufacturing can also suffer if management decides to implement it without first consulting with its employees. This is waste as an overall concept, where management likes the idea of lean but don’t see any success since they’ve not identified or understood the true problem they wanted to address.

There might be pushback from workers, as human resources management is a foundation of lean. If the burden of reducing costs is placed solely on their shoulders, then lean is actually working against it purpose, which is to find and get rid of waste throughout an organization.

Lean must be implemented smartly. If you increase efficiencies and in so doing create more product than you can sell, then you’ve created wasted. Therefore, you want to have a balanced economy in which your productivity meets the demands of your customers, not undercuts or overstocks.

Saves Time & Money

On the plus side, the most obvious advantage of lean manufacturing is that it saves costs. This applies to any business, big or small, even those outside of the traditional manufacturing industries. You find more efficient workflow, resource allocation, production and storage.

Another clear winner in lean manufacturing is time savings. This can be a problem if you’re reducing staff or their time working, but if well thought out and applied with a balanced approach it is a great advantage to business. The less time needed to finish a task, the leaner your workforce.

Lean manufacturing can also be eco-friendly, in that it saves on the cost of energy and fuel. Investments in more energy-efficient equipment creates savings and eliminates wastes as well as improving the environment.

The bottom line for lean project management is customer relations and improving customer satisfaction. This is essential to business success. A happy customer is a returning customer, one who will recommend your product or service and help polish your brand.

How ProjectManager.com Helps With Lean Manufacturing

In summation, the lean manufacturing methodology emphasizes flexibility and constant improvement of processes for greater efficiency. Using a project management software with features that assist in that ambition, such as ProjectManager.com, makes the process more manageable.

Multiple Views for Project Execution

Our award-winning software is designed to work the way you want it to. We offer multiple project views to accommodate varying preferences, so if upper-management is more traditional in their approach, they can view projects from a Gantt chart. All the project tasks are populated across a timeline, with dependencies linked, phases demarcated by milestones and progress indicated by the shading on the task duration bar.

A screenshot of ProjectManager.com's Gantt Chart interface, showing a construction project timeline. The words "Click here to try the planning software" are superimposed on the image above.

The heart of lean manufacturing, though, is visualizing the workflow to avoid bottlenecks and give teams only the work they have the capacity and resources to complete. This is where our kanban project view comes in. The board-and-card system offers transparency into the different stages of production. Cards, which represent tasks, can be moved throughout the board to convey progress, giving teams a quick look at the most pressing tasks.

Product backlogs can be managed in this fashion, and the production flow is controlled for greater productivity.

A screenshot of the Kanban view of ProjectManager.com, showing multiple columns labeled "To-Do", "Test" and "Deploy", with tasks underneath each representing their stage of progress.

Easily Measure and Report Your Progress

To improve processes, another fundamental for lean, you need data. How are your processes doing? Are they meeting your planned expectations? To measure this, use our real-time dashboard that automatically monitors six key project metrics and displays them in colorful, intuitive graphs. See at a glance how you’re performing in real time—and with single click reporting, share key data points to keep the team informed.

If you’re in the market for reducing waste, improving efficiencies and adding to your productivity through lean management, then you’ll want to use tools that can enhance your workflow, resource allocation and monitoring. ProjectManager.com is the perfect cloud-based project management software to assist you every step of the way. Cut waste today by trying ProjectManager.com with this free 30-day trial.

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