The importance of lean manufacturing in the post-covid-19 world


COVID-19 pandemic sent shockwaves through the manufacturing sector, leaving some firms wondering when demand for their products and components would pick up again. We’ve seen factories mothballed and workers furloughed or laid off, but there have been positive news stories too.

Many food manufacturers increased production in response to panic-buying, while others put their skills and capabilities to good use making hand gels, face shields and ventilators. Of course, there is no rest for pharmaceuticals companies at the moment as they pour their resources into developing a COVID-19 vaccine and treatment.

Manufacturers are now taking their tentative first steps out of lockdown and bracing themselves for the challenges that lie ahead. Demand forecasts will need to be revised and contingency plans put in place in case there is another sudden influx or drop in orders. New working practices must be adopted too, including strict adherence to social distancing and hygiene.

Those already hampered by inefficiencies and low productivity – invariably the result of archaic processes and poor use of resources – are likely to struggle most in the current climate. But it is also an opportunity for all businesses to re-evaluate their strategies and make improvements to drive performance and ensure their long-term survival.

Lean manufacturing might have been around since the end of the Second World War, when Toyota developed its well-known production system but it was not universally adopted, nor always developed over the years.

This is partly down to the fact that the immense progress seen at the start eventually levelled off. Major achievements, such as cutting defect rates to zero and lead times by three-quarters, cannot continue forever, despite regular investments in cutting edge machinery. Even the success of just-in-time and other lean practices are limited, unless they are underpinned by a wider strategy of collaboration across teams, agile decision-making and upskilling staff.

But digital technology has given us a reason to look again at the benefits of lean manufacturing.

Lean and digital are a powerful combination with shared goals around ultra-efficiency, productivity and performance. Data-driven systems unlock actionable insights that help to save time, reduce error and make the most of opportunities, far beyond the capabilities of humans.

Despite the availability and benefits of digital technology, both at home and in the workplace, adoption levels vary. While 26% of manufacturers say they are thinking about it but don’t yet know how to implement it, as many as 27% told researchers it is not on their radar. This was cause for concern before COVID-19 struck but it remains to be seen how many will change their thinking as a result.

Even in industries characterised by innovation, like pharmaceuticals, it is surprising to see how many companies use spreadsheets, whiteboards and paper-based systems regardless of their obvious shortcomings. They end up with rigid production schedules that cannot easily accommodate change, where processes are duplicated unnecessarily, and resources are either stretched or under-utilised.

Dynamic planning, supported by APS software, allows manufacturers to iron out these inefficiencies. With access to the same real-time information, production teams work collaboratively to spot where machine downtime or potential bottlenecks could reduce throughput. Since the plan is visible to everyone, there’s no need for handovers at the start of each shift either, saving hours every week.

Taken together, improvements like these enable manufacturers to make the continuous improvements (or Kaizen) that are an integral part of lean.

It is important to remember that digital transformation is not a stand-alone project but one that drives lean methodology in the modern world. As we have seen, the most committed lean advocate will not get very far unless they increase their capabilities through APS and other software like MRP and ERP.

COVID-19 has underlined the importance of innovation and resilience in the supply chain. Now it’s time to rethink long-standing strategies and processes, learn lessons from the crisis and build on successes.


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