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Lean Manufacturing Tenets: The systematic pursuit of excellence through fast cycles of learning

by Scott Simmons, Vice President, Operations & Engineering

There is something in the human condition prompting us to pursue excellence, to learn, to create, and to strive towards a worthy goal. As humans, we regularly seek challenges, creativity, and recognition as outlets to grow, excel, and achieve success. It is instinctive to us to improve and progress. In fact, I believe we are hardwired to progress; it is our natural state, our survival instinct taking control.

Lean is a straight-forward approach bringing a common language to support continuous learning, improvement, and our desired future state of excellence. Lean is built on the scientific method of experimentation and provides us a proven systematic approach. Without it, we flounder to progress from current state to the desired future state. Perhaps even worse, we expend valuable energy and resources moving, but frequently not arriving.

Core Tenets of Lean
At the heart of Lean thinking is the practice of learning through fast cycles of problem solving and experimentation. A Lean improvement or learning system has four basic characteristics:
A compelling vision or goal,
Knowledge of the current situation,
Identified issues or gaps existing between the vision and current situation, and
An accepted, agreed upon methodology for closing the gaps.

In this system, problems are welcome and used by leaders to align efforts towards achieving the challenge or vision. As we resolve those problems, we are exposed to systematic learning and experiential sharing.

Lean’s Origins
Lean started as a Japanese competitive tool, borne from benchmarking observations made during regular visits to Japanese production plants while searching for competitive enablers. Those early researchers observed the tools of Lean in action.

We now know those tools were the result of vigorous problem solving efforts. They were implemented as countermeasures to move closer to the goal while new learning was gained. Those tools were outcomes of the system and not the system itself. This knowledge has since become standard to Lean approaches for developing people and systems worldwide.

The Role of Creativity in a Continuous Lean Learning System
The development of Lean tools such as 5S, Kanban, Visual Management, Standard Work, and Setup Reduction took a high level of experimentation and creativity from individuals tasked with improving the overall system. I call this “creative benefit” – the unexpected innovation and creativity from workers challenged to improve.

Until just recently, the awareness that many Lean tools were simply the result of years of worker “creative benefit” was totally missed. Now, armed with better understanding of the relationship between a culture of problem solvers and the tools the culture developed, we are free to develop our own tools and take our learning to another level. Our survival depends on our ability to quickly respond to challenges and integrate that learning into sustainable platforms from which new learning is launched. This is a Continuous Lean Learning System.