You’ve heard the phrase “everything old is new again.” Things have a way of repeating—or even reinventing—themselves. We see it all the time in fashion, cars, and entertainment…and recently we have seen it in manufacturing, with companies focusing on getting to lean.

The concept of lean has been around since the days of Henry Ford who noted that “the longer an article is in the process of manufacture and the more it is moved about, the greater is its ultimate cost.” The Japanese took Ford’s concept to heart, perfecting the lean process during the 20th century, and American manufacturing is rediscovering it today.

Lean is a manufacturing philosophy that shortens the lead time between a customer placing an order and the shipment of that order through the elimination of waste. It reduces costs, cycle times, and unnecessary, non-value adding activities in the process (the things customers will not pay for), resulting in a more competitive and responsive company. Examples of non-value adding activities or waste include:

  • Defects in products
  • Overproduction of goods
  • Inventories of goods awaiting further processing
  • Unnecessary movement of goods and people
  • Delays caused by waits on equipment or another process
  • Design of goods not meeting customers’ needs

The idea behind lean is to identify these wastes and eliminate them through continuous improvement efforts to flow products at the demand of your customers while pursuing perfection. A properly filled lean toolbox can help you do such things as streamlining your plant layout for better and more efficient organization or implementing work cells to promote one-piece flows.

Lean also could involve the adoption of a just-in-time strategy to reduce in-process and on-hand inventory (although, in light of recent natural and political events, this might be embarked on cautiously so as to avoid inadvertent reliance on a particular supplier or region). The point is that many things can be done to eliminate waste—offering many tools for the toolbox. A company adopting lean might be well served going after the low-hanging fruit early to get a taste of success before moving on to other areas.

Last but not least, lean is a culture that must be adopted by the entire organization. Buy-in at every level—from executives to shop floor—and in every department is absolutely essential to successfully get to lean and, perhaps more importantly, to sustain lean and the resultant continuous improvement that your customers demand.

So why not take a look around your shop floor, your shipping and receiving area, even your office. If you see any waste, now might be the time to consider a lean transformation … getting or filling that lean toolbox. Your customers will benefit with better quality and quicker turnaround, your employees will appreciate being more engaged in the process, and your bottom line will almost certainly improve.