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Written by Robert Hemmant   
Friday, 29 February 2008 19:00

The endless pursuit of optimum flow is key to Lean success.

Getting Lean Compared to traditional mass production methods, a Lean manufacturing system requires far less time, human effort, capital and space to produce better quality products. Central to this Lean culture is the concept of “flow.” Flow comes into play from order receipt to product payment. The goal is to transform every task and process between these points to ensure we provide maximum value for customers at every turn.

This requires a stringent focus on improving the flow of information and material across the entire organization, and between customers and suppliers – all in an effort to shorten the timeline between customer order and customer payment.

Flow can be defined as “producing to real demand” by keeping information and material progressing from one value-added step to another without delay. But while a product may be “moving,” it is not necessarily “flowing” the way it should.

Perfect flow is something that must be constantly pursued in a Lean manufacturing environment. It means tasks are completed correctly the first time, thereby delivering high quality. It also means products can be built one by one, in sequence, or on demand, thereby meeting specific delivery needs. Perfect flow also adds value in the form of lower costs to an organization and its customers.

Achieving optimum flow involves three overarching steps: namely, creating, sustaining and organizing flow. Creating flow requires producing according to real customer demand. For example, this can involve a company moving steps closer together that add value during production to create the effect of one-piece flow, as in a bucket brigade made up of many parts, all working together as a cohesive unit. Creating flow also involves building products in smaller batches to better meet customer demand, and buying raw materials in smaller batches according to customer demand.

To sustain flow, it is crucial to eliminate anything that can waste time by interrupting flow. This may require reducing the causes for product defects at the source, reducing the causes of breakdowns and minor stoppages in the production process, or reducing variations in the process. All of these can eliminate waste and serve to sustain optimum flow.

At Celestica, we also work hard to organize flow. By finding new ways to make product abnormalities more visible, we’re better equipped to adhere to our own high production standards. We also seek out the best ways to organize our responsiveness to those abnormalities.

You could sum up the work we do to create, sustain and organize flow as one giant problem-solving exercise. As key players in our problem-solving initiatives, each team member must work safely and be highly motivated – recognizing flow is critical to success and everyone must pursue new ways of eliminating waste in every process.

As part of our efforts to optimize flow, we regularly stage Kaizen blitzes that engage workers in a proactive exercise designed to dramatically streamline the work processes they perform each day. Through Kaizen, a Japanese word meaning “change for the good,” employees regularly participate in intensely detailed work-activity appraisals designed to improve processes by identifying and eliminating unnecessary tasks and steps in each workflow. When the tasks associated with each stage of the production process become more efficient, everyone gets more done with less wasted effort.

While we work hard to improve the flow of information and materials moving across the organization and out to customers, we also focus efforts on maximizing the flow between the many suppliers plugged into our diverse and far-reaching manufacturing and delivery processes. If we are efficient and predictable to our suppliers, flow improves because our orders are easier to deliver.

To measure success in the pursuit of flow, we look at the possibilities and ask what else is possible, rather than comparing ourselves to what we, or other organizations, have accomplished. We are more intent on benchmarking against our own expectations, understanding there are so many opportunities for improvement. Therefore, we measure ourselves against our rising expectations and continuously drive toward greater improvements.

What exactly can customers expect to see when flow improves?

First: delivery improvements. Performance in this area can improve from a range of 60 to 65% satisfaction (i.e., delivering what the customer wants, on time and in the right quantity) to 95%-plus as a result of improved flow. The possible improvements are remarkable to see.

Many companies set the bar high when it comes to flow; for example, some companies take online orders for electronics that must then be customized and delivered to end-users within days. When we can help such companies cater to this level and complexity of demand, we can help them grow market share and revenue.

Beyond creating, sustaining and organizing flow, our role is to educate customers and suppliers on the role of flow within a Lean manufacturing environment – helping them understand why it is important to each of them. As I noted, the goal of flow is to improve the cost and efficiency picture, not just for our own business, but for our customers’ customers. We are all connected when it comes to flow.

Robert Hemmant is global Lean architect at Celestica (celestica.com). His column appears bimonthly.

 

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