How to Start a Lean Manufacturing Program

Lean manufacturing means doing more with less. It’s a concept that focuses on eliminating steps in the process that don’t contribute value to your customer. Regardless of the state of the economy, a lean approach is always timely and always a good idea. Lean manufacturing focuses on each step of the process to determine whether or not it’s got value to your customer--in other words, will your customer pay you to perform that step? If not, streamline it and/or excise it.

Build Your Team

Select the product for review. If you’ve got several, pick one to start. The one you select may be the one with the shortest production process or the one that’s the least profitable to you. That choice is yours, but think about grabbing the “low-hanging fruit” to start. Choose the one that will be the easiest to apply the lean method to and yield the most benefit to your bottom line.

Pick a team to help with the review process. It’s always best to select staff members who have a vested interest in process improvement. Generally, they’re the ones who work on it daily and benefit from the improvement. They’ll be the ones who buy in immediately and don’t have to be sold on the idea. Believe it or not, they’ll also be the ones most likely to “sell” the idea to their co-workers and champion the change.

Invite your team members to an initial meeting to review what lean manufacturing is all about and your reasons for instituting it. It will take some time to put lean manufacturing processes in place. Dispel any ideas you may have about getting it done in one or two meetings. You can use your launch meeting to establish the day, time and place for subsequent team meetings to occur, and you’ll need to commit to the team meetings as well. Nothing will defeat the effort as quickly as meeting postponements or cancellations because of your busy schedule. You need to be completely committed to the effort (and the improvement) as the leader or no one else will be.

Consider investing in formal training. It’s worthwhile to send one or two team members to a seminar that provides an overview of the lean manufacturing process. An online search will yield a number of classes both online and in person.

Establish your agenda for the next meeting before adjourning. Also, it’s a good idea to set the time frame for each team meeting. An hour is a good rule of thumb. And honoring that time limit is as important as committing to the meetings in the first place. Meetings that run overtime quickly deflate members’ enthusiasm for participating.

Reviewing the Process

Brainstorm with team members regarding the best product with which to begin instituting lean manufacturing. Remember general brainstorming rules: There are no wrong answers, everything should be listed for consideration and everyone should have a chance to share their opinion. Review the list of ideas and reach a consensus. This can be done in a variety of ways. A consensus is established when all team members accept the result. Not everyone will agree to wholeheartedly, but if all team members “can live with the answer,” you’ve reached your consensus.

Flowchart the process. This is critical to lean manufacturing. Without itemizing every step in production, you won’t be able to evaluate which ones lend value and which do not. Depending on the complexity of your process, flowcharting may take several sessions and can even take months. It is the most time-consuming and can be the most difficult part of establishing a lean manufacturing program. If you find your team bogging down in flowcharting a process, look for logical break points and work on those as smaller segments. You might even consider examining those smaller increments and implementing lean thinking to those sections rather than trying to tackle the whole thing at once.

Identify the value of each step of your flowchart. Each team member should be able to define why any given step is something that your end customer will readily pay for. For instance, if filing paperwork has no benefit to your client, eliminate that step. If on the other hand, filed paperwork or archived information can expedite a client’s re-order, by all means keep it.

Be especially wary of “because we’ve always done it that way” as a reason or explanation. Processes that “have always been done” are usually ripe for streamlining. Continue to ask “why” at every step until you’ve really gotten to the value of every step in the process.


Review your revised flowchart. For every step in the process, ask this hypothetical question: “Would my client pay for this if it was a line item on an invoice?” If the answer is “no,” eliminate that step. It’s waste in your overall manufacturing system. There are instances in which the value may not be readily obvious to clients. In the filing example, they may understand its value when you explain that your archiving system saves them money for their future orders. Keep in mind, though, that this is generally hypothetical thinking.

Determine what physical changes (if any) need to be made using the new flowchart as your map. In many instances, you can realize incremental savings without huge capital investments, especially if you’re working on a small segment of the entire process. Itemize the projected costs to investments that are required and calculate their return on investment.

Estimate the time it will take for implementation of the new procedure. Based on that, establish concrete goals and publicize those. Keep in mind the “ideal state” you’re trying to achieve and communicate that as part of the goal. If you’re working in segments, create a plan for each segment to ultimately flow into the next.

Consider using the Kaizen blitz method, especially if the change to procedure is relatively small and concentrated. The Kaizen method is a focused concentration on a single process or area that usually lasts 2 to 10 days. It’s beneficial because its short time line forces solutions quickly without allowing workers to have time to create excuses and/or delays.

Create a method for follow up and evaluation of the change. Allow your creation team to meet at set intervals after implementation to review statistics and run a “checkup” on the process to ensure no parts have returned to the former state.