One common question I get from organizations of all types, whether manufacturing or service, is how lean can apply to them. Each one thinks they are different and unique. The truth is they are all different and unique. In fact, if you look a little deeply at Toyota you will find every plant is unique, every plant has unique departments with unique requirements (plastics, stamping, paint, welding, assembly) and tons of unique administrative and technical units (IT, product and process development, sales, finance, and more). They all are expected to follow the Toyota Way.
The problem is distinguishing between lean solutions and the continuous improvement process. At the core of the Toyota Way is plan-do-check-act (PDCA). Toyota never simply copies solutions, even solutions from another Toyota plant with the same technical process. Of course there is core technology, such as welding, that is the same across plants. But there are many details of the process, such as material flow and packaging that vary from plant to plant and are continuously improved at different rates in different ways. Toyota does not want to specify standard methods to the point that they kill kaizen.
As I write this I am leading a lean leadership training course for a producer of highly customized complex equipment with cycle times of 4 to 8 hours per work station. We went to a Toyota plant and a seat supplier. There were a few questions on how they could apply what they saw, for example, standardized work. In the plant we visited a single assembly line produced a vehicle about every minute, the takt, so each job was balanced to one minute and standardized work was specified to the second. How could this be done for an 8 hour job? I responded that there was no reason to specify an 8 hour job to that level of detail and reminded them of the purpose of standardized work which is to have a stable and predictable process that can consistently meet the rate of customer demand. It might help to break down the 8 hours into bundles of tasks that should take 30 minutes each so every 30 minutes the technician could know if they are ahead or behind. This would also allow team leads to check the status of the work, identify out of standard conditions, contain the problem, and then do root cause analysis.
In PDCA, jumping to conclusions about what solutions are necessary, like second by second standardized work, is the problem. You are skipping over the process of defining the problem, identifying the root cause, developing creative countermeasures, and then checking what happened to develop further action.
In continuous processing operations like making paint or food there are different problems. There are relatively few labor-intensive jobs and the key is managing a lot of automation and perhaps loading and unloading. The problems are often equipment uptime, trying to reduce the batch size, getting the right raw materials to the right place at the right time, replenishing the raw materials from suppliers, and maintaining a high level of quality. These are all problems that can be addressed using lean thinking and PDCA. The key is to understand your business needs, identify what operational problems prevent you from achieving these business results, and then attacking the problems with a vengeance using disciplined problem solving.
That is why this is called lean thinking, not lean copying. Deep thinking about real problems and learning by trying are the real cornerstones of lean.
Dr. Jeffrey Liker is professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan and author of The Toyota Way. He leads Liker Lean Advisors, LLC and his latest book (with Gary Convis) is The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.