“Work smarter, not harder.” It’s a phrase I heard many variations of as an engineering student, and as most professors referred to efficiency, one referenced manufacturing and the concept of “lean,” a concept born from necessity. It’s often credited to Kiichiro Toyoda, founder of Toyota, and commonly misunderstood as only being applicable in large manufacturing facilities. Fortunately, it’s a basic concept that’s been used for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and only recently coined as “lean manufacturing” in the 1990’s. The main idea: preserve customer value while eliminating waste, or muda.
I was reminded of “lean” recently during a virtual trade show for the woodworking industry. The focus was to show how easy it is to apply lean strategies to small businesses, whether they specialize in custom work or have more of a production line approach. Since changes should begin with management, a good example in an office environment is the reduction of paperwork. Not only should the amount of printed paper be minimized, but each task or process can be evaluated for waste, using a tool called kaizen or continuous process improvement. If a certain form is not necessary to create customer value maybe it can be eliminated. If however, the forms are needed for non-value reasons like organization or clarity, perhaps a software upgrade can save time by synching files so no one has to input the same information twice. There are many ways to reduce waste and improve efficiency in the office.
Applying kaizen to production yields many ideas. Perhaps the most significant is autonomation, or jidoka; the idea that a machine can do the job of a human and stop when it detects an error or at the end of its work cycle to save power. The truth is unless the machine cost is on the order of millions of dollars, it will need the attention of a human to work properly and efficiently. A woodworking shop can have many machines working “autonomously with a human touch,” but the most common is a CNC router. Because it still requires an operator, it isn’t replacing a human, rather several tools. Ultimately it’s improving efficiency because it does more in less time and produces less waste by optimizing material yield, all while monitoring hundreds of sensors to prevent errors.
While jidoka aims itself at efficiency via quality control, the rest of the shop can benefit from good work flow by touching things as little as possible and completing any product from start to finish without interruption, thus reducing inventory. Let’s say I have to move a sheet of plywood from the material rack across the building to the CNC machine, then back across the building to the edge-bander, just to be returned to the shop where I got the material in the first place. That’s a relatively large distance for that material to travel. It’d be ideal to have these work stations oriented so the pallet of goods travels down an imaginary river, or highway, moving only a few feet from station to station. This is called value streaming and an ideal scenario may be a “U-shaped” work flow. Sheet goods would arrive at the loading dock to be stored just inside the doors and for a minimal amount of time. The CNC machine would not be far away, followed by the edge-bander, laminating station, shop, and finally the loading dock again. The value of the product didn’t change for the customer, but the amount of work and waste was reduced.
You can do it too. Think about the tasks you’ll be doing today, and ask yourself, “is there any step or process that can be removed or improved?” If so, you’ll be reducing waste, increasing productivity, and practicing the concepts of “lean.”