Real-time performance dashboards are part of the Lean Manufacturing evolution.

Real-time performance dashboards are part of the Lean Manufacturing evolution.

Lean manufacturing is evolving towards increased incorporation of information technology into the effort. How are you evolving your systems to support this move?

This evolution of lean manufacturing surfaced for me again recently when I came across this LinkedIn blog post by Terence Burton, President of The Center for Excellence in Operations, Inc.

Burton and I have crossed paths a number of times over the years, and I’ve always been impressed with his work. In this post he explores the relationship between lean manufacturing and information technology. He writes:

“A 5S exercise, a gemba walk, or a ritual VSM effort cannot touch the deep rooted, convoluted, and invisible casuals in these complex interconnected global networks. However, technology provides new insights and new unknown opportunities for improvement. Emerging technology such as business analytics, real-time digital performance dashboards, data visualization, transactional forensics, and cloud and mobility applications are having an enormous positive impact on Lean and continuous improvement in general.”

Without taking anything away from the cherished gemba walk, localized activity can impact the global supply chain only so much.

He goes on to point out that:

We are in the midst of an interesting revolution in manufacturing technologies and enterprise information architectures that are changing the landscape of Lean to a higher order adaptive, systematic, and technology-enabled improvement protocol. In many industry implementations the focus is full speed ahead with these evolving technology solutions.

At the same time, I appreciate that he is frank about the risks of bringing more technology to the effort. He advocates for a good balance “between purpose, process, people, culture, and the technology itself.” At the end of the day, people have to think:

People must not forget that they still need to think and go through the basics of interpreting and synthesizing information, drawing the right conclusions from fact-based information, making the right data-driven decisions, taking the right actions with technology, and making sure that technology is working well as an enabler of whatever they are trying to accomplish.

Technology is an enabler, but it can’t deliver results without intelligent people making sense of what they’re seeing. While technology has an important role in Lean, Six Sigma, and supply chain optimization, it isn’t an end in itself.

All this brings to mind a case study about a lean six sigma deployment we supported at an industrial goods manufacturing company. The company president told me, “I had these two high-powered engineers spending hours scrubbing data and building databases to get the information they needed for their projects.” The company had to improve on-time delivery and quickly, but key staff were spending days at a time cleaning up data rather than analyzing it and acting on it.

With our help, they were able to enjoy substantial improvements in on-time delivery and reductions in inventory. Furthermore, these gains were realized in record time because access to real-time data enabled the company to scope, prioritize and charter Six Sigma projects faster in the Define phase. In the Measure phase, there is an average 10% reduction in cycle time, and they have an almost seamless transition to Control phase.

So what’s changing in your environment? How are you evolving your systems to meet those changes? Please leave a comment, or  write to me at ejmiller [at] hertzler [dot] com. I’d love to hear from you.