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By Write Stuff

Lean manufacturing in brief survival steps

In recent years there’s been a good deal of change in the manufacturing industry. Workers nationwide are being introduced to the idea of “lean manufacturing”. To survive today’s shifting workplace and economy, everyone from Human Resources to the general worker must have some concept of this idea. What is lean manufacturing? Where did it come from?

Lean manufacturing, in short, is a set of principles that are meant to create less waste, more productivity, and utilize a smaller workforce. The cornerstone of all lean manufacturing models comes to us from Toyota. In their production system, the Japanese term “muda” or “useless” is used.

In their “Key Lean Manufacturing Principles” lists 7 basic types of waste. This trend has an interesting effect on the basic manufacturing worker. Gone are the days where these workers are responsible for a single job at which they grow adept, adapt to the changing nuances, and become “expert”. When those “experts” were out sick or on vacation, it was difficult to fill their positions. Production, shipping, and orders suffered from absences.

These absence problems can be solved with cross-training. Ben Viorel of a St. Louis robotics company maintains that cross-training isn’t about taking the expert from the job. Instead, when they instituted their cross-training idea he says, “With a more varied workload and a stronger skill set, employees will be more effective and efficient in their jobs.” The employees of Bastian Robotics are consequently happier with their positions.

The fact is, lean manufacturing isn’t going to disappear, so today’s line employee faces that change. In general, the company chooses from several models to begin implementation. When implementation begins, the employee “shadows” a job to learn the tasks of other departments just as many did in training. How does someone survive this change?

Take it as training…

Everyone in the industry has been in training at one time or another. Way back in the beginning or when they were promoted, nuances of that new job had to be learned and developed over time. Breathe easy. Employees are vital to the continued business of, well, the business. Learning new things isn’t always easy especially if one job has little in common with the next. However, it can be done, and learning something new is actually good for brain and memory function.

Ask questions…

Ask those questions no matter how silly they sound in your head. The fact is, job shadowing doesn’t last forever. While Sally, who’s done sorting for fifteen years, is there, ask her. After all, fifteen years ago, she was new, too. She probably had the same questions.

Listen to the answers…

There have been several recent studies about how people listen to reply instead of listening to understand. When training, and especially in cross-training, listening to understand is vital to job performance. Not to mention, understanding the answer to the last question might lead to another.

Be honest…

This is an idea that hearkens back to asking those questions. If something isn’t clear, even after questioning, ask again. Express any uncertainty. The next time Sally’s gone, this will be the job to be covered. If something integral to the process is misunderstood or needs more time, say so.

Train your shadow…

In cross-training it will inevitably be your job to train someone. Train them the way you wish you’d been trained. Listen to their questions. Ask them a few. And let them do the job. Your shadow will thank you and your peace of mind will, too.


Change is difficult for many people. It’s not easy to leave what we know and venture into new elements. Even upper management implementing this brand new model will have reservations at one time or another. Their reasons will be different but their reactions are probably the same. So breathe deep. Training is training no matter the function.

The manufacturing climate is changing thanks to lean manufacturing techniques and implementation. The goal of these techniques is to create a more productive workplace. Surviving the change of the newer, leaner marketplace may seem daunting but you can survive it.

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