Lean Manufacturing

By Dean Mischewski, Production Engineering Manager, Tait Communications.

Lean manufacturing at TaitFor many manufacturing businesses the Lean journey is often driven by the need to rapidly avert financial or business pressures which are coming to bear.

Taking a longer term and proactive approach, Tait Communications embarked on a Lean Manufacturing programme in late 2006 to ensure that the high-mix, medium volume manufacturing environment could continue to deliver competitively-priced communications solutions, systems and products to our global customer base.

For a Lean Manufacturing programme to be successful, management and team commitment is essential, coupled with a systematic approach to program design, new process implementation and seamless change management. If your organization is considering changing its business environment to adopt Lean processes, this article may assist your planning as you follow the steps we took to ensure the success of our Lean transformation.

1. Get commitment

Ensuring buy-in from all the stakeholders across the business will empower the team and help remove the inevitable roadblocks and challenges along your journey. Encourage your leadership team to participate in the project, asking questions and providing feedback.

We began our implementation of Lean with a single pilot production line. We chose to start with our “TMA” line, a customized production area producing mobile radios, a popular product for Public Safety and Utilities customers in particular. This line produced one of our highest volume products, so we were confident that any incremental gains would quickly multiply in their effects. Just as importantly, the product was in a growth phase, so we were able to improve our efficiency while maintaining existing employee numbers. Our senior management was strongly behind the need to develop new approaches. As a consequence, the implementation team was empowered to make the necessary changes with the resources needed. Team commitment resulted from the priority and air cover given to their feedback; they were making decisions to improve their area of the business and make a significant contribution. This was key to the success of the initial pilot.

2. Think “Lean”

Make Lean a way of life, a business approach and an opportunity to improve productivity across all your processes.

One way to think about Lean is the removal of waste, but it goes much deeper than that. One representation of this system is the “House of Lean” or “Lean Temple”. The version we adopted looks like this:

Kaizen Lean Temple

Source: LMAC Consulting

Kaizen is the roof, the goal: continuous improvement in terms of lead time, quality, safety, customer delight, cost, morale, and overall value (to all involved, not just the customer).

The foundation is Standardized Work.

The pillars are Agility (or Flexibility) through Just-in-Time processes, and Control through Jidoka (“automation with a human touch”): simple visual control of the process to detect problems early, short-interval management to work around problems quickly, root-cause analysis to fix problems permanently, and mistake-proof processes to prevent problems in the first place.

3. Identify standardized work and develop into best practice

Getting to grips with what your business considers “standard practice” is often more complicated than a first glance indicates. Identify your standard practices and hone them to perfection!

We started with identifying our standardized work, recording a detailed video analysis of every aspect of the assembly process. This helped us clearly see the difference between value-adding and non value-adding work. It allowed us to quickly identify waste, which made it possible to eliminate it, and to identify better work practices. We documented our best practice and trained all operators so that it became our “only practice.” We broke down our assembly tasks into “job elements”— very low-level descriptions of each step—each of which might take only a few seconds. And as we standardized each piece of work, and locked down every aspect of the assembly process, that paved the way for improvements in agility.

4. Embrace agility

Changing your team’s mindset from working an eight hour shift to participating in 27,120 seconds of productive work time is empowering, exciting and delivers real results.

We invested time and energy into creating flexible production lines, using an application we developed that connected each job element to its tools, components and detailed instructions. That allowed us to tune our production process to a frequency that precisely matched customer demand, even as that demand varied from week to week.

One of the biggest changes, from an operator’s perspective, was how we transformed our work stations. We moved from traditional seated assembly benches to high-capacity flexible stations, where the operators stand to work (although they also have a “perch” stool that they can use to take the weight off their feet). Increasingly, the benefits to health and well-being associated with standing rather than sitting has a become a movement in itself.

These height-adjustable workspaces with direct station-mounted lighting, and ergonomic location of tools and components means that our Lean work environment is far healthier, as well as cleaner and tidier.

Another aspect of Agility was the setup time reduction work we did on our highly automated Surface Mount Assembly lines. On one line we took average setup time down from nearly 90 minutes to about 20 minutes, mostly by putting processes in place to allow much of the setup work to be done while the line was still running. This increased flexibility because it lessened the temptation to run our automated processes in big “economic” batches.

5. Take control and measure

Standardize the work, then the control becomes straightforward.

At any given moment through the day we were able to tell the ratio between how many seconds worth of work had been done, and the time elapsed since the start of the day. We display this number in real-time, and the display goes from green through orange to red if the number drops below certain thresholds. It becomes immediately apparent when something is going wrong, and we can step in with a counter measure straight away. Alongside productivity, the other key metric we display is quality, measured in terms of first-pass yield at our automatic test stage.

A significant reduction in work-in-progress inventory was implemented on the production line. In Lean thinking, inventory is not only wasteful, it hides problems. In practical terms, when things go wrong, the team doesn’t have a buffer of product to continue working on. Problems became disruptive, intolerable, so that we had to fix them quickly and remove further risk.

Lean transformation

The results speak for themselves when a Lean approach is introduced to the manufacturing environment.

Before our Lean journey began, the TMA line produced 180 mobile radios per day. Following the development and implementation of a Lean approach, the same number of employees, utilizing just 50 percent of the manufacturing space, was able to produce up to 440 units per day. This productivity improvement of greater than 100 percent was ample motivation to apply our Lean learning everywhere we could, rolling the same approach out across the entire manufacturing facility to consolidate the gains.

In conclusion, we now know that our Lean maturity has given us another insight into our Lean journey. Understanding the opportunity and delivering the benefits of Lean, also reveals opportunities to continuously improve. Complacency is anathema to a Lean organisation, and we continue to identify and deliver improvements, meeting those Kaizen goals at the top of the Lean temple.

Tait Connection MagazineThis article is taken from Connection Magazine, Edition 3. Connection is a collection of educational and thought-leading articles focusing on critical communications, wireless and radio technology.

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