How to Speak Lean Manufacturing
Parlez-vous français? Parli italiano? If you aren’t at least somewhat knowledgeable in speaking another language, that language often sounds … well, foreign to you. Many new factory workers find themselves similarly lost when the conversation shifts to Lean-speak.
The jargon-heavy terminology of Lean and the complexities of how words and terms fit together with concepts and execution are enough to alienate anyone who isn’t fluent. Thankfully, like any foreign language, it’s possible to learn to speak Lean.
Lean manufacturing is a philosophy, practice, and culture
Lean is a philosophy that — when employed correctly — can reduce waste and improve efficiencies to help manufacturers stay competitive in today’s global marketplace.
Lean manufacturing’s beginnings trace back to the Toyota Production System, where “just-in-time” manufacturing was adopted to eliminate anything not adding value in the production process — all while delivering the best possible products to customers quickly and efficiently.
Beyond just-in-time concepts, learning the language starts by understanding all of Lean’s associated philosophies and practices. The core themes of Lean manufacturing include:
- Value. Manufacturers create value from the perspective of customers, while seeking to eliminate waste and expenses, to deliver a product at an optimal price and for maximal profit.
- Value stream map. Manufacturers must analyze materials and resources used to make a product, while identifying waste and potential improvements.
- Flow. Flow ensures smooth processes throughout production, removing any functional barriers to improve lead times and ensure a constant stream of throughput.
- Pull system. Pull systems allow teams to move immediately to new tasks after completing others, helping them adapt to challenges and improve their knowledge.
- Continuous improvement. Manufacturers should pursue constant improvements, or “kaizen,” to continually eliminate waste and develop perfect systems for the value stream.
Lean spans all parts of speech
Understanding Lean comes down to observing all parts of speech. Lean philosophies come in the forms of verbs, nouns, adjectives, and more, representing concepts, actions, systems, and outcomes. Here’s a smattering of examples showing the importance of Lean as a language:
- Gemba (noun). This term refers to “the Real Place” in Japanese. In Lean manufacturing, it refers to the place in the factory where work is performed. As such, it’s the best source of information about problems or processes.
- Kaizen (adjective). A simple Japanese term that means “good change,” kaizen is used in Lean manufacturing to refer to efforts that create continuous improvement.
- Poka-yoke (verb). A term defined as the act of “error proofing,” poka-yoke refers to any check, process, or step in Lean manufacturing aimed at helping workers avoid mistakes.
Understanding the language of Lean
It doesn’t take formalized training to understand the unique language of Lean — there are many resources available to explain important concepts and terms in a relatable way. There’s an abundance of information online, as well as critical texts like Jeffery Liker’s Toyota Way or James P. Womack’s Lean Thinking.
Learning to speak Lean can open many doors in manufacturing — ones that lead to less waste, more efficiency, and a better bottom line. And, just like learning French, Italian, or some other world language, mastering the lingo starts by understanding what you’re trying to say.