"Lean Line" Call About Batch/Process Industries


Thanks to my Podcast listener, Dan, for calling the Lean Line and leaving this question (use the audio player below):

If your PC can't play the audio (or if your company blocks it), the question is:

“I work for a company in the paint and coatings industry and we're undergoing a
[lean] conversion. I was wondering if you could talk about those in batch or
process industries. We have a lot of interia where I work and disbelief that
lean can really help us a lot. It's believed it can only give us small, isolated
improvements. I'm wondering who out there, in an industry like ours, is proving
that is NOT the case. “

I don't have any direct perspective on the process industry, but do you have some experiences or perspectives to share with Dan?

My train of thought for thinking through this, though, might be as follows:

  1. Rather than thinking about “implementing Lean,” think in terms of “we are solving these problems.”
  2. If “Lean can help” depends partly on how you define Lean. If people are defining Lean as a tool (such as kanban) or even the entire Lean toolbox, the same set of tools that might apply on an auto assembly line is different than in a chemical plant (or a hospital!). Someone might say “kanban can't help us in this environment” and they may be right. If your biggest problem (going back to #1) is “equipment downtime,” maybe the right Lean tool is Total Productive Maintenance, not kanban.
  3. Better yet, think about Lean as the management system or the thought process. When problems occur, do you employ workarounds and “put the fire out” or do you also work wit the employees to find the root cause(s), employing countermeasures that help prevent the error from occurring? Are employees engaged in the process or are they merely “workers” who aren't expected to think and contribute? I could go on and on… the 14 principles of The Toyota Way can apply very broadly… is the company making decisions that focus on the long-term, even at expense of the short-term? What about the other 13 principles?

Lean isn't a magic silver bullet, nor is it easy to implement. But, it is a powerful methodology. If a hospital can make it work, why can't a chemical factory? What thoughts do you have on this?

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent book is the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus. His latest book has been released as an "in-progress" book, titled Measures of Success.

  1. Matt says

    Dan –

    I use to work in a batch process. Our plant had paint lines and an electroplating line.

    With the paint lines we went from large runs of 100 or more parts to small runs of about 10 parts. This helped reduce our kanban size, drove quicker changeovers, and created flexibility in delivering to assembly so one work station wouldn’t be overloaded.

    In plating, we didn’t reduce batch sizes but we did implement kanbans to help us plate the right parts at the right time. We also smoothed the production out over the day. In stead of running 21 bars of a product back to back, which meant we had to buy 21 bars when the program started, we would run 7 bars per shift which allowed us to only have to buy 7 bars at the beginning of the program. This reduced our cost and made us more competitive.

    Even batch process industries can benefit from lean principles and lean thinking. This is just some of it. There is a plethora of opportunities. Like Mark said, it is about solving problems and improving everyday.

    I hope this helps.

  2. Anonymous says

    I’ve recently joined a power generating facility, after spending the better part of 15 years in discrete manufacturing engineering. We are as continuous process as it gets. However, there is significant improvement to be had if you’ve ‘learned to see’ – TPM.
    Therein lies the difficulty. In my presentation to generate interest and support, I’d like to present examples of lean enterprise implementation in a continuous process industry (e.g. electricity generation ideally). Can anyone help?

  3. Mark Graban says

    DTE Energy in Michigan has used Lean for some years now. Email me and maybe I can put you in touch with somewhere there through my network (link in the left column).

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