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Is lean manufacture universally relevant? An investigative methodology.

Aims and background

The concept and acceptance of lean manufacture as a set of principles is now fairly rooted in the literature[1-3]. The principles behind lean production are not in themselves new; many of them can be traced back to the work of pioneers such as Deming[4], Taylor[5], Skinner[6] and more recently in the UK such investigators as Hill[7], Voss[8], and Lamming[9]. However, although the concept of lean production as now understood could have modelled from this literature, it was not until the Japanese auto industry was studied[1], that the total concept became clear.

While there are some voices of discontent[10,11] to the adoption and ultimate effectiveness of lean production, nonetheless many case examples exist to demonstrate how companies are changing their production methods and management practices to become leaner and fitter. Indeed lean manufacture has been extended to encompass the whole spectrum of activities in the business such that world-class companies are seeking to become lean enterprises[9,12,13].

However, both the original work and subsequent offerings have tended to restrict their field of analysis to similar industrial sectors, namely, high-volume or mass producers, in particular the automotive and electronic sectors. Little published work[14,15] seems to have explicitly addressed the issue of whether lean methods are suitable and applicable in industrial sectors which are characterized by highly differentiated, low-volume production of low repeatability. For want of a better term, we shall refer to such products as "super value goods"(SVG), since one of their defining characteristics[16] is the high value added through the total supply chain and hence the market price of the product. Examples of such products would include: power generation, aerospace airframe and engine manufacturers and the like. In order to fill this gap, researchers at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG)[17], embarked on a case study based investigation to compare and contrast the methods and practices currently being adopted in a potential SVG sector (civil aerospace) with a typical lean manufacture sector (automotive). This paper describes the in-company methodology developed and some of the main findings of the research.

Lean manufacture

While much has been written on the subject of lean manufacture, the models which exist to collect all the information available on operational practices and performance which constitute lean manufacture and place them into a unifying framework, are somewhat complex. Hence the first stage of the research was to develop a model which could then act as the template from which to guide the data collection and assess the status of an SVG company.

To begin, a definition of lean manufacture needed to be established. In simple terms lean manufacture was defined by Womack et al.[1], as follows:

* integrated, single piece production flow, small batches, just-in-time giving low inventory;

* defect prevention not fault rectification;

* production pull not push with smoothed demand;

* flexible, team-based work organization with multi-skilled workforce and few indirects;

* active involvement in root cause problem solving to maximize added value;

* close integration from raw material to customer through partnership.

We added what we believed to be one further ingredient based on the work of Clarke and Fujimoto[18]:

* greatly reduced overhead burden by the use of matrix teams, simplifying information flow and processing, enabling flatter organization structures.

These attributes represent, at a high level, what could be described as the best practice principles that you would expect to see in a high-volume lean manufacturing company.

Context and structure

However, such principles are in fact the outcome of recognizing the external business context and drivers facing the individual sector. Consequently, the framework shown in Figure 1 was used to structure the development of the detailed research methodology.

The key aspect of this framework is the reinforcement of the linkages between drivers in the business environment and the strategic responses to these. Hence the core business processes, practices adopted and finally the appropriate key measurement attributes, used either as a control or as a means of comparing performance, are consequent on the environment drivers.

Thus we are adopting the view that lean manufacture practices and measures are the response by "best in class" companies to their changing environment.

Having established the guiding top-level structure, more detail was placed on each of the key areas of interest in Figure 1. Porter's Five Forces model was used and adapted to direct and summarize the collection of publicly available information on the industry environment and drivers. This was ascertained for both the aerospace and automotive sectors. In the case of the applied work, the information was later cross-chec
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Author:James-Moore, S.M.; Gibbons, A.
Publication:International Journal of Operations & Production Management
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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