It's been inferred within the recent posts on Lean and Six Sigma that with the economic problems this country is facing, we should focus on these concepts now more than ever before. But with the economy offering so little margin for error, I think these concepts could easily bankrupt a small shop. Itís not that the concepts are bad. Itís simply that they are secondary tools, tools to fix something thatís wrong. But what exactly is wrong? That is the job of the Theory of Constraints.
Lean promotes process improvement, as evidenced by the comments from the thread below titled "Improving the business: Lean and Six Sigma?"
"This is supposed to help, to reduce the waste, optimize processes." "How do you know if your processes are operating at the optimum level?" "How do you know if there are no interactions between factors in your process, thus not letting your process operate at the optimum level?" "Do you collect data and how are you analyzing them? Comparative or inferential analysis?"
In contrast, TOC teaches us to identify our constraint. There can only be one constraint at a time, and spending even a second of your time trying to fix something that's not your constraint is simply making matters worse.
It specifically warns us against measuring success by individual process improvement. True success can only be measured by global improvements, measured as throughput. Take my company as an example, which I consider to be a typical small cabinet shop. My constraint is not even in production. I suspect that that is true in most small shops. How many other small shops then are making matters worse by applying Lean concepts to production, obsessing over minutes saved when the real problems lay somewhere else entirely? These are mistakes that we canít afford in this economy.
The small cabinet shop is more a service organization than it is a manufacturing organization. Iíd bet that the majority of participants on the WOODWEB forum are small shop owners, not managers of large manufacturing plants. Why then donít we focus on the other issues?
I never hear anyone talk with the same passion that they discuss Lean, about the process of finding work, designing work, engineering work, managing the processes of purchasing, scheduling, storing, delivering, and installing. Without question, these are factors that decide the profitability of a company as much or more than production. Years ago there were fantastic discussions on here about TOC. The participants of those discussions either learned what they needed to learn and moved on to new subjects, or are off making lots of money. Lean, it seems, is the new hot topic. I think thatís a mistake.
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor G:
It is tough to be Lean in a custom shop. With the tooling and jobs ever changing there is no time to study or set up a Lean throughput. When you start to get in to production is where Lean starts to work well. Where you can study the process and implement changes to see what will become of it. If it works you keep it if it doesn't maybe try something else. For a 1-3 man shop Lean is a tough thing to do.
More back to what I think the questioner is talking about, when working for most every shop Lean was only important when things seemed backed up. Make a suggestion as to a new idea and you were told we will try that one day when we are slow, well when that day comes you have nothing to try it on and so you have a lay off. New ideas can be painful to implement, you need a clear goal and the desire to follow through.
I am working toward a small production style setup but without the extra hands. I make all of my doors without setup changes. I even have three paint systems clear, stain and pigmented. All the usual stuff as well. My thoughts are just go to the station and perform that task. I even added a 5x10 CNC. So what does Lean really mean? Some might say that is absurd to have that much tooling for a one or two man shop. I find the labor to make setups is too costly and when the market rebounds I should be set for production. Now in my book that is Lean, but then I believe many times Lean is perception and may not be reality.
My schedule right now is a set of bookcases using 1-1/4" maple construction, followed by a set of melamine closet cabinetry, followed by two different jobs consisting of about 15 or so interior doors. And the stuff that's still in planning and bidding stages is just as diversified. I guess there's not really a way to implement Lean for those of us who are trying to stay diversified?
A one man shop, a ten man shop, or a forty man shop can all benefit from Lean thinking and guess what - the owner can have a life and the risks they take for being in business, get rewarded. Say what you want, think what you want, Lean works and it works well.
I took the time recently to just observe my crew in action, or the lack there of. I came to the conclusion that most of what we do now as cabinet makers and furniture builders is boring. We build boxes, and we make repetitive operations for days at a time and then assemble, ship and start all over again. The other thing I noticed as a business owner, I expect my employees to operate as efficient as the machines they are operating. This is not very realistic, and I decided I am wrong to push them to that extent. Although it drives me crazy to observe the slower pace they work at compared to me, I now accept it. We are short staffed to start with and to push harder will only lead to mistakes. I spend time at night to refine the CNC programs, to try to gain time where it doesn't involve humans. After all they are only just that, human.
Studies, bench marking, and value streaming are important, but to lose sight of the basic idea of Lean is short sighted at best. The core business of a business is where the focus should be, and the ancillary items should remain just that, even when implementing Lean.
Sometime ago, I decided before I start working with a company to implement Lean. I would request that they implement a 5S system before they delve into Lean. I'll supply information and what a 5S system is and does, and see where things go. The reasoning behind this is that if a company can't do this, they don't have a reasonable chance of being successful implementing Lean, and there is no point in wasting more time and money pursuing a goal they are not committed to realizing.
So, in short, the cream rises to the top, allow them access to the resources to make disciplined changes to benefit the company. When the 5S system is working, that is used that as a springboard to gain acceptance of more disciplined changes throughout the organization, TOC or Lean.
By the way, many times, depending on the size and makeup of the company, Lean won't be brought into the picture until the ability of the company to understand and implement systems is determined. The right people have to be in the right places. You can go a long way with TOC, but if the organization has the size and market share to go Lean, further accomplishments can be realized with Lean.
That having been mentioned, most small businesses will never have the clout to fully implement Lean, (they don't influence the bottom line of their vendors enough to have a inventory pull system on site, for generous volumes of flat stock, for example). That is not to say elements of Lean can't be applied successfully as they often can (perhaps visual inventory systems for hardware that the company owns outright). The main difference the hardware is paid for, the flat goods would be billed as pulled from on site inventory.
For example, if you talk about saving ďXĒ amount of time and increasing throughput as a result of changing a process, workers will balk, because they are paid by the hour. Oh, they'll talk it up in the meetings, but watch them on the floor, and it is obvious they are not buying into the project. If there is not a system in place to financially reward them based on increased productivity, why would they want to cut their own pay by becoming more efficient?
Resources planning and utilization will always be challenging for the organization, but once the benefits are seen, it generally get much easier. I'm not trying to dance around your question and I agree that you have to cope and use what you have to work with, and accept that it will take longer to accomplish to your goals. No one should drive a business into the ground by losing sight of their core business. Like a great many things, it takes as long as it takes.