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The Physics of Lean Manufacturing

Lean Manufacturing

The Physics of Lean Manufacturing

Lean manufacturing is the process of trimming of excess and inefficiency within a manufacturing process, most commonly in assembly line environments.

Lean Manufacturing at a glance

The method of lean manufacturing is systematic, and takes into account all waste in all stages of the production process. Lean manufacturing is also referred to as lean production, lean management, and lean thinking. Many industries have adopted the principles of lean manufacturing, as the methodology is ideal for identifying and fixing major and minor inefficiencies that can contribute significantly to operating costs. Lean manufacturing can be applied to software development, inventory control, management practices, and more. At its heart, lean manufacturing is about highlighting what adds value by making reductions in everything else.

What are the origins of Lean manufacturing?

Lean Manufacturing is a philosophy of factory management that found its start with the Toyota Corporation and its Toyota Production System, which in turn comes from the Japanese tradition of manufacturing in the conditions of post-war Japan. Beginning in the 1980’s, Lean Manufacturing was studied and introduced to the world outside of Japan by MIT academics. Taiichi Ohno developed the principles, in order to eliminate waste and empower workers. In contrast to stockpiling resources like Henry Ford’s production line, Toyota build strong ties to suppliers in order to slim down inventories, aiming for a 1:1 inventory to production ratio. This allowed for them to make changes to production very quickly, enabling them to beat competitors in responding to changing market demands.

The Rules of Lean Implementation

Centered on the utilization of a particular tool set to identify and eliminate waste, the concepts of flow, unevenness, and waste in operations take center stage. Lean Manufacturing has ten rules that help it to meet its goals:

  • Eliminate waste
  • Minimize inventory
  • Maximize flow
  • Pull production from demand
  • Meet customer requirements
  • Do it right the first time
  • Empower workers
  • Design for rapid changes
  • Partner with suppliers
  • Create a culture of constant improvement

Each of these Rules interact with one-another to build a working environment that embodies the waste-cutting ideals of the lean manufacturing process. There are seven original forms of waste, and each rule targets one or another specifically. Waste is found in transport, inventory, the motion of people and equipment, waiting, overproduction, over processing, and the process of looking for and fixing defects. Additional forms of waste have been identified over the years, such as waste in space, skills, and mismatches to consumer requirements. The philosophy of Lean Management prescribes continual improvement, and this improvement can also be applied to the philosophy itself.

How can I Implement Lean Management in my Business?

Lean Management is a philosophy that should be implemented at all levels of operation to be most effective, but it can target individual areas of a business specifically. For example, if your aim is to improve worker morale or efficiency, consider the concept of Muri, the unreasonable demands that management places on workers (or even machinery); unreasonable work can be the catalyst for wide-ranging problems. This example highlights a common problem with the successful implementation of lean management practices, the philosophy moves businesses in directions that are often highly counter-cultural to the established practices of the business. It can be challenging to alter the entire structure of demands placed on workers or machinery, new modes of thinking need to be adopted that may even run counter to the prior ideals of the business. Communication and clear goals are therefore key. The implementation starts at the top, with senior management becoming familiar with the lean philosophy and discussing their vision. Clear and simple objectives should be set, and then communicated alongside the vision to the entire work force. Take volunteers and appoint members to teams from all the departments to work towards implementing the new program. A pilot project should be chosen that is easy to keep track of and understand the impact, and the project should be run for several months to allow time for it to have a meaningful effect. Once the project has run its course, evaluate its results, and gather honest feedback from the entire work force. Once you know what has and hasn’t worked, standardize the effective changes and implement them into training while abandoning the others. The next step is to target the next area improvement with the next lean tool, working down from the ones that have the largest potential returns for the business. The philosophy emphasizes continuous improvements, which means that improvements are made one at a time in incremental steps that are easy to understand and analyze. The mindset this requires is one of honest self-awareness and adaptability. Getting attached to superfluous or harmful behaviors can sabotage the entire program. Stephen Shortell at Berkely University says it best: “For improvement to flourish it must be carefully cultivated in a rich soil bed (a receptive organization), given constant attention (sustained leadership), assured the right amounts of light (training and support) and water (measurement and data) and protected from damaging.”

Common Obstacles in Implementation

One of the most important things about the Lean Management philosophy is that it is a philosophy. The tools and processes are essential to the successful adoption of the philosophy, but failing to understand that Lean Management is a philosophy may lead you to miss the forest for the trees. The entire business culture needs to be repurposed towards the lean philosophy. Another common problem is failure in communication. One example of this problem is a failure to consult with lower level employees; lean implementations that look good to management may not be made with a full understand of the situation if employee input is not solicited. There needs to be a strong line of communication between management, implementation leaders, and all employees that goes in both directions. A final common obstacle is in deciding exactly how to implement the philosophy. Luckily, several pre made methodologies exist. Two of the most popular are the Value Stream Mapping and the 5S methodologies. Reading more about successes and failures under those implementation methodologies can help you tailor the Lean Management philosophy directly to your businesses needs and circumstances; learn from the mistakes and successes of others to cut back on wasted time!


Lean management practices can produce unprecedented cost cutting for your business. Implementation may seem daunting, but the potential rewards more than match the effort required. Following programs like S5 can help you become more familiar with the philosophy and the best practices for making it an integral part of your business culture and operations. Lean management has helped make Toyota the manufacturing giant it is today, and many successful businesses have used its example to become the heads of their industry. Follow their example and it will help you succeed in yours!