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What's different about implementing lean in a low-volume, high-variety environment?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I manage a plant that makes highly engineered, low-volume products. What do I have to do differently from the high-volume guys to implement lean management concepts?

To be honest, you’re describing a Toyota line in Japan: each car is a different model and highly engineered. The impression of “mass production” is just that – not being able to see the differences between one car to the next. The whole point of lean was to adapt production to the ideal of “sell one, make one.”

The key is in how engineering and production are used together as a value stream to create better products by engaging people more.The problem is the other way around. I visited a plant the other day that makes high-tech electronic appliances for B2B customers. It had all the trappings of a “lean” factory – with production analysis boards, kanban boards, trains delivering materials, and so on. But looking about it more closely we could see that each cell was dedicated to a product type, and indeed, many cells were shut down because of lack of demand, the kanban cards were batch production instructions and not, well, kanban cards and the production analysis boards were set up to control productivity not engage people in problem solving (with, of course, zero comments from operators).

Now, as you can imagine, they were not pleased when I pointed this out – but the interesting thing is that they truly had no idea what I was griping about. They were so steeped in the mass manufacturing mindset of “one cell = one product” and costs calculated on unreasonable sales expectations that they simply could not see the mass production thinking, no more than we realize we’re breathing air when we inhale.

Looking at all the shut cells and the unreasonable capital outlay this represented (which will find its way into the bottom line), we can wonder whether they really had not one single product of demand? Or whether they didn’t have enough demand to be bothered to start an economic batch. Similarly, on the team boards, they tracked hourly productivity in terms of PPH (products per person per hour), which begs two questions:

  • What can operators really do about that? Sure they can better learn to do things faster, but productivity is mostly impacted by quality issues, parts supply, and machine or equipment availability – factors mostly out of the operators’ control.
  • The productivity calculation makes sense for a batch, once we have concentrated all the demand on a short period of time where we can treat our product as a mass production product. This is very different from lead-time: when I’ve sold one, how long does it take to bring that specific one (not one out of finished goods inventory) to the customer? Real productivity is global: How many products do we get out of the production investment in total?

Lean is Low-Volume

High-volume guys don’t do lean. They take lean techniques that they use in a Taylorist way to improve some of the issues unavoidable with mass production. They don’t seek lean thinking, they look for lean production – that is plain silly 30 years after the term “lean” was coined. We’ve learned better since then.

Lean thinking is all about low-volume per product and highly engineered products. The key to Toyota’s success was always its engineering, not its production. More importantly, the key is in how engineering and production are used together as a value stream to create better products by engaging people more. How does the passion engineers have for their product reach production (routine tasks every day)? How do production issues and ideas feed back into engineering in the form of value analysis and value engineering?

To do things differently, you can ask yourself “what have these Toyota guys really got to teach us?”

In their terms:

  • What are the challenges threatening the plant? What is going on out there on the markets and at corporate that we need to respond to whether we like it or not, whether we think it’s fair or not, whether we feel it’s reasonable or not? 
  • By going to the workplace, can I get people to agree on the problems we need to solve in order to meet these challenges? What exercises do we set ourselves (such as producing to takt time) so that we understand these problems more deeply? 
  • By listening to people more intently and working alongside them to solve problems, can I develop new solutions to have a more flexible, more productive plant through greater participation?

I realize that this is probably not the answer you expected, and yes, you will get to SMED, cell design, standards training, and engineering debates about product design. But to really do something differently from the high-volume guys you mention, you first need to gather your team around understanding how lean thinking is different from mass production thinking. It’ll probably be more fun as well.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Steve King April 10, 2019

Thank you for this post.  It is one of the most incitful articles I’ve seen written about good manufacturing practice.  

Randi Nasario By April 13, 2019

Thank you for pointing this out, very good article. I can really relate to this leading a production where lean is being implemented on a highly manual line and mixed operations is a demand for several of the operator stations. Versability is a demand and the key is in std.work and 5s and most of all a really tight cooperation with engineering. Being lean is also being flexible in a standardized way.

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