Lean – a practical view
The term “lean” was coined to describe Toyota’s business during the late 1980s by a research team headed by Jim Womack, Ph.D., at MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program. At its simplest it means maximising customer value while minimising waste. Whether you produce a product or provide a service companies are using lean principles to reduce waste, minimise cost and produce better products.
Much has been said and written to the point that Lean today is almost a study in itself, however, its origins are rooted in history. Lean can also be described as ‘process thinking’ where each process is examined, its relevance and effectiveness reviewed, and modifications made to the process or the process is eliminated. Lean is not rocket science.
When we look at ancient buildings, prehistoric monoliths and massive earthworks it is hard to imagine that all of these were built without thought to the steps and processes involved. How did the Egyptians build the pyramids in such a complex way in a relatively short time, how was Puma Punku in Bolivia designed, manufactured and assembled and how was a complex structure such as Gobekli Tepi in Turkey created 15,000 years ago? The current thinking according to Lean practitioners is that in 1913 Henry Ford, at Highland Park, MI, married consistently interchangeable parts with standard work and moving conveyance to create what he called flow production.
Ford lined up fabrication steps in process sequence wherever possible using special-purpose machines and go/no-go gauges to fabricate and assemble the components going into the vehicle and deliver perfectly fitting components directly to line-side. Taiichi Ohno, and others at Toyota looked at Ford’s situation in the 1930s and realised that a series of simple innovations might make it more possible to provide both continuity in process flow and a wide variety in product offerings. They therefore revisited Ford’s original thinking and invented the Toyota Production System. This shifted the focus of the manufacturing engineer from individual machines and their utilisation, to the flow of the product through the total process making it possible to obtain low cost, high variety and high quality.
There is an account concerning the building of the Empire State Building that simply describes the application of common sense using a Lean approach and how it impacted on the eventual outcome. The schedule on this project was as adventurous as the design. The project would be done, the architects planned, in only eighteen months. General contractors Starrett Brothers and Eken were engaged to do the job.
Less than two months after breaking ground, in March 1930 construction began on the steel skeleton. The frame of the skyscraper rose at the rate of four and a half stories per week, or more than a story a day. No comparable building has been built at a similar rate of speed. This accomplishment came about through effective logistics combined with a skilled, organised workforce. The project became a model of efficiency. A railway was built at the construction site to move materials quickly. Since each railway car, a cart pushed by people, held eight times more than a wheelbarrow, the materials were also moved with less effort. The steel girders could not be raised more than 30 stories at a time, so several large derricks were used to pass the girders up to the higher floors. In those days, bricks used for construction were usually dumped in the street and then moved from the pile to the bricklayer by wheelbarrow as needed. The streets would have to be closed off, while the labor of moving the bricks was backbreaking and inefficient. With ten million bricks needed for this job, the old method would be impractical and wasteful of time. Instead, Starrett Brothers and Eken devised a chute that led to a hopper in the basement. As the bricks arrived by truck, the contractors had them dumped down the chute. When they were needed, the bricks were released from the hopper and dropped into carts, which were then hoisted up to the appropriate floor. While the outside of the building was being constructed, electricians and plumbers began installing the internal necessities of the building. Timing for each trade to start working was finely tuned, and the building rose as if being constructed on an assembly line – one where the assembly line did the moving and the finished product stayed put.
The Empire State Building is a 1453-foot, 103-story structure that was built in just over 13 months ahead of schedule and under budget.
Planning, the elimination of waste and needless processes has been a hallmark of efficient production and construction for ever. Whether it is labelled Lean or something else the principles can help every business owner become more profitable, timely and produce product and services that the end user requires.