13 September 2011

Lean manufacturing extends beyond the shopfloor

Ann Watson, managing director of specialist awarding organisation EAL (EMTA Awards Limited), addresses the need for manufacturing firms to apply lean tactics across the board

Increasing output is a key priority for manufacturers. Removing waste and inefficiency from the shopfloor enables them to be more productive and, crucially, more profitable. This understanding has fuelled the move towards adopting lean manufacturing, which has been the main focus for many firms for a number of years. Given that the government has set the manufacturing sector firmly within its sights, seeing it as vital to securing the future success of the UK economy, this has made adopting lean tactics all the more important. UK manufacturing is once again in the spotlight and firms must operate efficiently to enable them to compete on the global stage. While the workshop is the most obvious place to start, firms must ensure that all departments are run on the same lean model if they are to be truly efficient.

Often, the best way to rid an organisation of bureaucracy and ineffective, burdensome approaches is through training. In these austere times, it is important that effective time management and maximising limited resources is a common goal – not just for the business, but for each department and employee, too. While the manufacturing sector has been quick to tackle inefficiencies in the workshop, firms have been criticised for not applying the same principles across the board. Developing the individual skills of all employees will pay dividends, not only by improving productivity but also by increasing staff morale. EAL's qualification in Business Improvement Techniques (B-IT) has been delivered to many firms in the sector to help individuals within the organisation improve the day-to-day running of the overall business.

By challenging the status quo of existing processes, the qualification has helped firms to address how they perform administrative tasks and encouraged them to take a lean approach. Firms have been able to reduce spending costs, develop their employees and achieve many quality improvements. It is all well and good for manufacturing firms to boast a fast turnaround time to attract new customers, but if office staff are unable to operate in the same timeframe, firms aren't really operating a truly lean model. Manufacturers have been particularly responsive to inefficiencies on the shopfloor, but need to go further and commit to upskilling all staff. Firms must take a holistic approach by adopting lean principles throughout the business. Each department should see their individual tasks as steps to achieving the same result. This will not only help to drive the business forward, but will foster a more collaborative approach among staff.

Therefore, it is crucial that firms commit to training across the board. Developing employees' soft skills can have a dramatic impact on overall productivity. Actively engaging all staff in training will not only improve productivity, but will also ensure greater buy-in from individual staff members. By improving business techniques – and feeling responsible for achieving the results – staff will begin to see themselves as expert practitioners. Over time, staff will have a better understanding, not only of their own role and how they can improve their performance, but of the wider business and how they are a key part of it. This is vital if firms are to be seen as industry champions. Also, there is a lasting legacy associated with training. Long after the qualification has been completed, once effective processes have been put in place, staff are equipped with the skills to deliver ongoing improvements.

Ann Watson, managing director of EAL (EMTA Awards Limited)

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