Lean & Flexible

Are lean and flexible equivalent terms?

I’ve been seeing more and more about flexibility and hearing the term used interchangeably with lean. Flexibility, mainly referring to capital intensive equipment and plants continues to be a major theme in the plans and strategies of US automakers looking to make a comeback. I agree that this is a necessary investment (at least where investments are being made) and can be an important enabler to lean. I would argue however, that any measure of ‘flexible capacity’ should not be misinterpreted as a measure of lean progress.

I worked in a facility for over 6 years on a line that was capable of producing 3 similar, but different components. In all my time there, we only once used that capability to produce all 3 varieties – and it was during prove-outs! By the time I moved on from that department, all of that capability had been stripped away from not being used. Bits and pieces of equipment that ‘flexed’ for use with other component variations were stripped away when we needed spare parts. What was still intact was never cycled. (As I’m sure you can tell, we also had a really good industrial materials program in place). Even if we tried, I’m sure we would never get some of it to even move!

Flexible capacity only gets you so far. Without necessary changes to eliminate forecasted scheduling and put in place a level schedule based on customer demand all of that investment in flexibility will be nothing but waste. Of course it is also imperative that there is at least some customer demand for the products you are capable of producing. The other alternative is that you are able to create new products, within the constraints of your existing equipment and capacity that will meet customer needs.

Has anyone else had a similar experience with flexible equipment? Are there any good examples out there of using this capability effectively?

Update 9/8/06: This post prompted a very thoughtful post on the Gemba Pantarei Blog, check it out. It includes a discussion of the “bullwhip effect,” a favorite topic of mine.

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Luke Van Dongen

Luke, an auto industry engineering veteran, blogged here from 2005 to 2006.

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1 Comment on "Lean & Flexible"

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  1. Mark Graban says:

    I agree that “lean” and “flexible” are not the exact same thing. I think you alude to “flexible” being a subset of the lean approach.

    What good is it having flexible equipment if you’re not producing all three products in the same day, yet alone the same hour.

    That would be a different measure of “lean-ness” on a line/cell/machine that can run different products: What’s your average batch size or average time between changeovers?

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