Getting Lean: What We Discovered From Our Trip Into Lean Manufacturing

One thing is a certainty: Manufacturing is a very complex process, and it is difficult, at best, to build a system that can deliver quality product, that is just what the customer ordered, on or before the delivery date, with no errors lying in the trash cans and no excess materials lining the shelves.

If you can build such a system, you have created a manufacturing process that would have made William Edwards Deming proud. Deming was the systems genius that went in to Japan after World War II and taught a nation willing to learn how to drastically change their manufacturing processes. As a result, in short order, Japan began shipping products with amazing quality throughout the world.

We've heard the acronyms: TQM (Total Quality Management); Six Sigma; TPS (Toyota Production System), etc, which over time morphed into “Lean Manufacturing”.

The goal: Use less material, save on production costs by streamlining manufacturing processes and eliminating errors, and deliver exactly what the customer ordered on time, the combination of which will bring an impressive improvement to the bottom line profit of the company who gets it right.

The product we manufactured at Phoenix Custom Apparel was custom designed apparel and firesuits (most of our customers were racing teams, and the decorations on their crew shirts, pants, jackets and driver's firesuits were critical to getting their sponsors recognized while they were at a racing event).

At Phoenix we used in house graphic artists / designers to create a product's image from the customer's ideas; had our own cad cam pattern making system to create men's and women's clothing, and custom fitted firesuits for drivers; carried a huge selection of fabrics for the different products; decorated with our embroidery machines, or through the latest dye sublimation process, for images; then once the fabric was decorated, did the cutting and then sewing to get just the look and size and feel the customers wanted. You can imagine the complexity of getting all the pieces of that puzzle put together to actually generate a completed product that met everyone's expectations.

And, this is true for ANY manufacturing activity or product, from processing a mortgage loan, to building a multi-million dollar plastic extraction machine, to making custom designed team apparel for a racing team. The similarities in production processes are amazing, regardless of what is being produced.

So is the complexity. Companies everywhere are constantly spending huge dollars to achieve this goal of improvement in production processes.

Interestingly, during the very early stages of the development of our own Lean Manufacturing system at Phoenix, we made the surprising discovery that where most of the problems in the company were found was not on the production floor, but rather in the front line practices, policies and procedures. More specifically, that the problems we discovered in the sales and order creation processes, and in the company systems, were where we needed to do the vast majority of our work and implement change.

And, also surprisingly, I have found that this is the case in other companies / industries.

So we went to our conference room and began putting up pieces of paper identifying each step from the time the phone rang  or an email was received from a prospective customer, through to the writing of an actual Work Order that could go on the production floor. Through that process, a Sales Order Process flow map was created, with attendant forms, scheduling calendar, and processes that insured that the manufacturing team knew just what they were to produce, and when orders needed to ship.

As we implemented those improved front line processes, then added to that improvements we made in our production floor layouts and processes that were also discovered in our lean journey, we achieved significant benefits throughout the company. We had a happier staff, and happier customers, quicker processes and shorter production times. Going lean actually works.

The lesson is, though, if you are having problems with getting orders from the beginning to their shipment in your operation, don't just concentrate on the production procedures and staff. Open your eyes to all of your company processes, from the first customer contact clear through to the delivery to the customer. You may be surprised at where you need to spend your time, efforts, and money to make the changes needed to achieve the  improvement you are seeking.

This guest post is courtesy of Bruce Bowler. He is a manufacturer of custom designed apparel for corporate and racing tem users; forty year career in mortgage banking, past Chairman of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, past President of the Colorado Mortgage Lenders Association. Former Northwest Division Director of the National Hot Rod Association, driver of a 271 mph dragster; music composer and author of The Bankruptcy Alternative.


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