Continuous Improvement vs. Lean Manufacturing

Continuous Improvement vs. Lean ManufacturingToday, it is crucial for businesses to continuously strive for “Kaizen”, a Japanese term meaning “incremental improvement”. The term started with the Toyota Production System (TPS). We recently wrote a blog entitled Toyota Production System and its use in Non-Automotive Applications which detailed The Toyota Way.

We hear all about Lean Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement and although they might seem to go hand-in-hand, that is not necessarily the case.

What is Lean Manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing is production which focuses on eliminating waste – reducing and controlling manufacturing and production costs all in an effort to increase efficiency, profitability and ultimately, value to the customer. It really means that companies are seeking ways to drive improvement through improved flexibility, sharpening of production processes, and increasing output all while reducing costs.

What is Continuous Improvement?

Continuous improvement is taking an established production process and looking for ways to incrementally improve the production process. Although individual changes may not seem to have a major impact, the aggregate means significant change and improvement to the manufacturing process. By taking small measured steps, as a course of every day action, it also allows for improvement while eliminating risk of making one massive leap to try to achieve the same effect.

One example of an incremental change towards continuous improvement is the implementation of ergonomic casters in a manufacturing environment. While there may be additional costs associated with these high-end casters, the reduction of push/pull forces on material handling equipment can help reduce the risk of workplace injury for plant floor employees. This, in turn, can greatly increase employee morale and engagement. Increases in efficiency and productivity are also a benefit of an incremental change over to ergonomic casters – ultimately more than compensating for upfront costs.

So, What’s the Difference between Lean Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement?

Lean manufacturing focuses on eliminating waste. This can sometimes be achieved by a management decision to achieve their goals – for example, head count reduction or using less skilled workers. While this may be a short term cost savings strategy, it is not a long term strategy. These decisions, under the guise of “lean manufacturing”, can lead to overworking production employees and employee dissatisfaction or employees who are not as skilled taking longer to perform processes and possibly put them and others more at risk of workplace injuries. This can result in stress and conflict between management and production teams.

Continuous improvement tends to come from the ground up. By encouraging and supporting production floor employees to identify and find solutions to achieve improvements in the manufacturing process, there are wins all around. First, production employees feel more valued and listened to, thereby creating a bridge between the shop floor and management team. Secondly, when their recommendations are implemented, it gives employees a sense of pride that they achieved improvement for the company. Another reason the continuous improvement strategy works is that the production employees are more likely to adopt change from their peers, people who they know have first-hand knowledge of the production process.

By focusing on just the dollars and cents vs. the bigger picture, organizations can miss the bigger vision of their manufacturing environment. Incorporating a focus on company culture by adopting the continuous improvement philosophy allows organizations to incorporate both costs and people in their vision. Continuous improvement stimulates employees to achieve for the greater good of the organization.


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