I recently discovered an article by Beau Groover that outlines his less-than-ideal experience in a government office process. He notes that at one point he was “almost three hours into this process and had accomplished absolutely nothing.” While Groover is clearly experienced in process improvement and has a trained eye for seeing that his experience wasn’t favorable, the general populous would also find this experience distasteful. It doesn’t take an expert to know that you are unhappily accomplishing nothing and wasting time. At the end of the article, he correctly concludes that the customer should be kept in mind when process development and improvement. It’s true, the customer is the most important part of business. The customer is the driving force behind why your business exists and the goal of your business should be to please the customer and improve ways of doing so.
While he makes a great point, I think the moral of his story is a bit incomplete. This issue, along with many others, is a question of customer value. Many processes involve many superfluous activities that the customer is essentially paying for that gives them absolutely no value in the product they are purchasing; these activities are wastes. For example, redundant work is a waste. It doesn’t add any value to a product, but adds process time, which also adds cost. The article by Groover explains a perfect case of redundant work. Here is another case that applies more directly to manufacturing facilities: If an operator inspects all of the products after his or her process and then another operator inspects them before they enter the next process, that is redundant work. If one operator doesn’t find any flaws in the product, does the next operator need to check before any additional processes are done? Probably not (as long as they both have an equally trained eye). These wastes should be eliminated whether it be with a technique outlined by Groover in his article or by taking a closer look at your processes and taking action to prevent it, such as creating or updating standard operating procedures (SOPs). To clarify, I don’t mean all inspection processes are redundant work. Quality assurance definitely adds value to the customer because they want their product to be top-notch the first time they get it.
Let’s explore another popular waste, excessive movement. This can entail movements of all kind; products, materials, tools, and people. Do you think the customer wants to pay for your maintenance worker to walk half a mile to get to his tools and back to the job for every job? The longer that machine is down, the longer the processing time is for the product, which adds cost. The customer, in turn, has to pay for this additional cost. This cost, however, is not a valued cost to the customer and should be eliminated or minimized. How about material movement? If the raw material for a process is stored in Timbuktu (can be read figuratively or literally, it has the same effect), the customer helps pay for the time it takes to move the material to the process. Does the customer find value in the fact that these materials are well-traveled? I doubt it. Get your processes sorted and materials placed optimally for the work that is done at each workstation. This technique is part of a popular lean manufacturing technique, 5S.
What about excessive inventory? This applies to both the customer experience and hidden non-value adding cost. Excessive inventory typically adds long lead times to products. Nobody enjoys hearing that they have to wait, say, 8 weeks to receive the product they just paid for. Waiting is a poor customer experience. Also, having excessive inventory means that the products sit as work-in-process (WIP) for a much longer time than necessary, which adds costs in materials and in time. How can you get rid of excessive inventory? Well, maximizing machine utilization shouldn’t be the most important factor of efficiency in your plant. Just-In-Time (JIT) manufacturing should be. JIT is the principle that product should only be made when it needs to be; following this principle eliminates piles of inventory sitting around while still utilizing your bottleneck machines at the correct capacity to meet your customers’ needs. Eliminating excessive inventories minimizes non-value added costs, meaning it can reduce the price the customer pays while also decreasing the lead time dramatically, which leads to happier customers. Happy customers are repeat customers.
So while the customer should be the focus in applying lean, the customer experience of the process or product isn’t the only concern. There should also be an emphasis on the behind-the-scenes processes that the customer has no knowledge of. Many times the customer can be completely happy with the product, and even happy with the price of the product. But how do you think they would feel if they found out that your process wasted 50% of its time and they could be paying much less for the product? Suddenly, they aren’t so happy with the price. So you shouldn’t be happy with it either. Just because nobody else knows you are wasting time doesn’t make it acceptable.