Lean Manufacturing in the Pandemic Era

Gary Conner is featured in an interview for The Fabricator, Published October 2020. Read the full article here


Lean manufacturing in the pandemic era

Problem-solving steps up for metal fabricators in uncertain times of the COVID-19 era

The problem-solving and creative thinking aspects of lean manufacturing help metal fab shops navigate the bumpy COVID-19 pandemic road. Getty Images

During the depths of the lockdown in April and May, lean manufacturing—especially just-in-time inventory management—got some bad press. Were supply chains too lean? Did manufacturers need to scrap JIT and start holding more inventory?

“There’s a lot to be said for diversifying your supply chain, of course. So much has gone to Asia over the past 30 years, and that’s going to change. Many manufacturers are reshoring and finding redundant sourcing. But I certainly don’t agree that JIT is a dead duck.”

So said Gary Conner, a consultant with the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership. The two-time Shingo Prize winner has written six books about lean manufacturing, including several about lean in the small job shop, and got his start at a custom precision sheet metal fabricator.

Lean manufacturing’s definition seems to vary with one’s perspective. A CFO might view lean as rooted in lead-time reduction and cash-flow improvement: reducing the time between paying for a job and shipping and receiving payment for it. Shorten a once-lengthy delivery time and you increase capacity by default. But what good is all this capacity when demand dries up entirely?

“Look to Toyota.”

So said Jeff Fuchs, president of Baltimore, Md.-based Neovista Consulting, who added that, yes, custom fabricators might not be able to apply Toyota’s approach to single-piece flow and cellular manufacturing, but that doesn’t mean they can’t look to the automaker for inspiration, especially when it comes to navigating a downturn.

The company’s San Antonio truck plant “was scheduled to open [in 2007]. As the worst of the recession took hold, Toyota furloughed across the board, but there were no layoffs of rank-and-file employees. The company ran at a low rate of production in some portions of the line, but it also built classrooms along those production lines.”

This, Fuchs added, exemplifies a broader definition of lean manufacturing. “It’s really about developing the problem-solving capabilities of people.”

The Lean Toolbox and the Pandemic

Consider a fabricator with a well-established 5S program—sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain. “5S captures all the important aspects of maintaining a safe work environment.” The “shine” component is especially applicable now. “Shining is essentially sanitizing,” Conner said.

“Standardizing” also helps when multiple people need to access the same workstation over different shifts. And this might be more common now as shops split staffs into multiple shifts, so fewer people are on the floor at a given time. This, Conner said, broadens each employee’s job as everyone carries work through multiple manufacturing steps.

The pandemic hasn’t changed the foundational aspects of the lean toolbox, but it can affect how tools are applied. Conner described the act of identifying value-added and non-value-added activities. Customers pay only for value-adding activities, but that doesn’t mean that all non-value-adding tasks are unnecessary and wasteful.

Consider a fabricator, pre-pandemic, that implements cellular manufacturing for some portion of its product mix. Cell designers work to reduce motion (a classic lean waste), and in doing so they move workstations close together. Employees need not waste time walking to the next station; they just hand off the work to their co-worker a few feet away.

Now imagine a fabricator designing a cell, or adjusting an existing one, to the pandemic. Nothing has changed except for one aspect: determining which non-value-adding activities are necessary and unnecessary. The extra space required for appropriate physical distancing used to be unnecessary waste; now, of course, it’s very necessary.

Fabricators are no strangers to physical distancing, particularly when it comes to process automation. They are used to safeguards around automated cutting, bending, and welding systems, which keep operators at a safe distance. That thinking now just needs to be applied to other areas of the shop floor, like assembly.

As Conner explained, an external challenge like COVID-19 might help operations discover how to do more with fewer resources. Does an assembly cell need 10 workers doing a single job, or can it get away with five cross-trained, physically distant workers? If so, could the team be split into two shifts? If that’s the case, what would be the resulting throughput?

In this situation, certain lean tools really shine. For instance, standard work practices—documented on paper or, even better, tablets or laptops, complete with videos and pictures—help cross-train employees. Those communication tools in turn help train-the-trainer programs. “Someone can be the best press brake operator in the world,” Conner said, “but that person still might not be able to train someone effectively.”

Conner recalled his days in precision sheet metal when he used to train co-workers using a boxful of broken press brake tools and bad parts. Whenever he could, he showed these parts to new operators and walked through how and why the problems occurred: incorrect tonnage calculation, improper bend allowance and bend deductions for the die openings, and so on.

If such training becomes regular—just a recurring part of the workday, week, or month—knowledge spreads. When a crisis hits, trained people are ready to adapt.

“The pandemic gives shops a chance to reassess,” Conner said, “but only if they take advantage of it, not if we just sit around and moan and whine instead of looking for opportunity.”

Opportunities take many forms, and some might be short-term. Conner described one fabricator in the Northwest that shifted gears to produce UV light boxes for use at hospitals, so essential workers could sanitize and reuse their PPE. Demand for these boxes isn’t likely to last, of course, so it wouldn’t make sense to spend millions of capex dollars on the project. But the fabricator didn’t, of course. Instead, it used its lean tools to make those UV light boxes without significant capital expenditures.

Historically, many have viewed lean manufacturing initiatives as job killers, and it’s an understandable view. After all, if lean is about freeing unrealized capacity, what if that extra capacity can’t be sold (like during an unprecedented lockdown and economic recession)? Say a 60-person company lays off 20 people, only to realize that with improved processes and waste reduction it can get by with 40?

Fuchs referred again to the definition of lean manufacturing. It’s not just for shortening lead times. It’s about developing an organization of problem-solvers—hence the significance of those classrooms Toyota built in its San Antonio truck plant during the worst of the Great Recession.


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