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Lean Manufacturing Takes Hold, Causes Some Tension

Several years ago following the crash of local manufacturing, many Valley companied turned to a concept called lean manufacturing in an attempt to cut costs and reduce waste. What was then seen as a temporary cost-efficient solution has turned into a permanent fixture on the manufacturing landscape. With overseas competition growing more intense by the day, many firms are continuing to utilize the lean method. Additionally, some even predict that in due time the process will spread to almost all aspects of business. Often misunderstood in its definition, the ideas behind lean are quite simple, having emerged from a management method generalized from the Toyota Production System. Essentially, lean is a business initiative aimed at reducing the seven typical wastes: over-production, waiting time, transportation, over-processing, inventory, motion and scrap. The key lean principles include a striving for a perfect first-time quality, in which the company aims for zero defects and tries to reveal and solve problems at the source. Another principle is waste minimization, or the elimination of all non-value adding activities and safety nets, as well as the maximization of scarce resources such as capital, people and space. Additionally, lean manufacturers look for continuous improvement in the form of a reduction of costs and improvement of quality, as well as a greater flexibility. Lastly, lean also can allow manufacturers to build and maintain a long term relationship with suppliers through collaborative risk sharing, cost sharing and information sharing arrangements. Pamela Welden, the director of the employee training institute at the College of the Canyons, has worked extensively in training local manufacturers on the tenets of lean. She believes that as more and manufacturers adopt these principles, it will aid them in finding their specific niche business. “Lean is expanding rapidly and it has an exciting future. We’re seeing a lot more of this as a continuing trend,” Welden said. “Potentially it will lead to manufacturers making smaller batches of products that are made for a niche area and a niche customer group and responding to their customer needs more quickly. We’ll see some changes, due to lean manufacturers will find these niches more easily, but it will require a facile and quick moving organization.” No easy task While manufacturers may have initially endeavored to adopt lean as a quick-fix solution for their ailing companies, many have found that adopting lean is no easy matter. Joe Grossnickle, the president of Van Nuys-based aircrafts components manufacturer, Riggins Engineering has been utilizing lean for five years, but has only recently seen the dividends in the past 12 months. “It took a long time to make much progress. What really helped was hiring a consultant one day a week, who can steer the initiatives from our shop,” Grossnickle said. “It absolutely will be a permanent fixture in the world of manufacturing. Otherwise, I just don’t think you’ll be able to compete with the rest of the world. If you’re not doing it in the future, you’ll have a heck of a time competing.” But lean does not come without its drawbacks, as employees at many “lean” companies often chafe under the constraints of the new demands. “Lean isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s very difficult,” Grossnickle said. “You need everyone to be on the same page. That can be a difficulty in this country, but it isn’t impossible. It takes patience and a concerted investment.” Another person who believes that lean is going to be a permanent fixture on the manufacturing landscape is Tom Mundy, the president of Arleta-based Superior Thread Rolling. “Lean is going to be a permanent thing in local manufacturing. To successfully implement lean will take a long time and a lot of years for people to invest the money,” Mundy said. “It’s a very gradual process and it takes a large upfront investment to reap the dividends. These lean ideas are not people’s second nature and it’s not the way that United States manufacturing has been brought up. It takes a lot of work and it’s expensive.” Workplace tensions But Mundy believes that cost isn’t the only prohibitive factor that companies must take into account when they decide to go lean. He also concurs with Grossnickle that lean can increase the level of workplace tensions and dissent. “It can have negative repercussions, your employees can think that’s it’s just a temporary thing you’re trying out and not fully buy into it,” Mundy said. “It’s tough on your employees because there’s a lot of new learning that these guys have to do. When you’ve done something for 25 years and then have to learn a new skill it creates a lot of tension. Trying to change your culture is difficult; it takes people out of their comfort zones.” But not everyone who has adopted lean thinks that it is here to stay. While Mark Sommer, the managing director of Valencia-based Dell West Engineering, has implemented lean at his firm, he believes that lean will eventually be phased out in favor of the “next big thing.” “There’s always going to be a topic du jour or a trend that everyone runs to. Lean will be here until they find the next big thing,” Sommer said. “I’m constantly hearing that lean is here to stay, but I can almost guarantee that something will eventually replace it. But at the moment, lean is the best there is. We’re finding we have absolutely no choice but to find optimization advantages.” In the meantime, Sommer predicts that lean will eventually spread out into different aspects of the American economy. “Lean will eventually be more advanced and evolved,” Sommer said. “People will start using it more for their costumer and business to business. Companies could start using lean as a marketing measure to explain to their customers what a good deal lean has allowed them to receive.”

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