If you thought of “lean manufacturing” simply as reducing head count, then this article will challenge and probably change that thought process. I use the term “process” as you will implement steps to continually improve your manufacturing facility.

“Leaning up” a company or manufacturing process is more complex than eliminating labor or adopting the flavor-of-the-month improvement program. Myriad tools exist to facilitate lean manufacturing—including Kaizan, Six Sigma, Kanban, Total Quality Management (TQM), 5S or 5C, Statistical Process Control (SPC) and others. Each technique is unique to its application and desired results, but overall the concept is to maximize efficiencies while eliminating waste.

For our industry, we need to look at techniques not independently but concurrently, as each contributes to the overall effectiveness of manufacturing processes. One should not apply a tool only to address waste and another for quality or another for safety or behavioral changes. No matter what method you incorporate or adhere to, one must start by; (1) identifying key performance indicators (KPIs), (2) map the process, (3) designate owners of each process, (4) identify waste and non-value added activities, (5) eliminate the identified waste and continue the process.

(1) KPIs “Where do I start?”

Lean manufacturing will force you to look at all areas of your facility to eliminate waste and effectively improve all processes. Although this recommended activity may seem rudimentary, it is a necessary step. First, identify the KPIs. Our industry has historically focused on yields and labor efficiencies. With the relatively low margins, command of yield variances has been the Holy Grail of profitability.

Yield management may seem to be simple as it is one of the first topics in everyone’s daily operations meetings. But reporting yields is different than managing yields. Therefore, determining what factors affect the yields and how to manage those are steps in identifying waste factors.

One component linked to yields is labor. One may obtain high yields but at what cost for additional labor? The challenge is to develop the correct balance of obtainable and consistent yields with proper crewing of each processing line. Other KPIs to consider in addition to labor and yields are raw materials, uptime of equipment, packaging, processing aids, utilities, etc. All need to be balanced and mapped.

(2) Map the process

“We’ve been running this plant for years. We don’t need to map out any processes. We know what’s going on out on the floor.”

This would not be the first time those statements were made. Mapping a process is a simple task, providing benefits to both you and each supervisor performing the task. All one needs is a whiteboard and marker to identify the flow of product and the interaction of equipment and people. You need to go into a conference or training room, commandeer it for a day and begin mapping a lean-manufacturing process. Each step needs to be detailed to a high level. Add the number of pieces per minute/hour and time factors for labor, and identify where each product piece goes and how it is transported (hand, conveyor, combo, etc.).

Once each line has been mapped, it is necessary to connect each line to its respective areas (the end of one process is the beginning of another). A typical area of improvement—which you might find when mapping your process—is excessive product handling. Too often lines have been designed without a consistent flow that continually goes start-stop-start-stop. It is almost as bad as being stuck behind a slow foursome on the golf course on a Sunday afternoon. Most production floors and lines have been designed to accommodate a specific process but fail to be incorporated into the overall manufacturing process of the facility. Once the individual lines are installed, each one is somewhat managed autonomously. Mapping each processing line will bring forward the areas where waste and non-value added activities are generated and compounded.

(3) Designate process owners

Simply identifying waste or non-value activities doesn’t do any good unless someone actually becomes the champion or owner of the process—each process needs to have an owner. Whether we are talking about “lean” or other activities, each person needs to be accountable for their span of control. As the owner of a processing line, it now becomes my responsibility to make that particular line lean. After the processes have been mapped, each owner must answer the following questions:

    * Why is each task done?
    * What wasted activities are evident?
    * What affects productivity?
    * Where are the bottlenecks?
    * What improvements can be made?

As each question is answered, I would challenge one to drill to the smallest detail—not simply accept the historical, generic or accepted answers. The rationale for drilling into this depth on answers will lead to the actual activity that will reduce fat from the process.

(4) Identify waste and non-value activities

“What can be improved and how can I make my line run better?”

The first answer from an owner’s (supervisors) perspective will be, “I need more people.” Whether a line supervisor, industrial engineer, or general manager, I have heard that answer each time anyone asks.

Throwing people at a problem will not solve a problem or uncover the root cause of waste. Now is the time to implement all of the earlier techniques mentioned for each process. Although a process may appear to be simple, there are multi-factorial events that effect other processes and interactions with workers.

Waste and non-value activities can be identified as movement, time, product, energy, etc. For example, double- or triple-handling a product wastes workers’ movements, adds non-value actions in time, negatively effect the product and wastes energy to transport. Just because a process has existed for years doesn’t mean it is lean. Each mapped process should facilitate your thoughts to examine each activity. I am a firm believer in the fact that focusing on the small details will improve the overall process significantly more than focusing on just one major issue—and there is scientific and anecdotal data to support that belief.

(5) Eliminate waste

It is time for the big payback. Going through the mental gymnastics would have been a waste if you don’t get results. Each process owner needs to develop plans to eliminate the identified waste. These plans may be simple ideas such as a job change or consolidation of tasks, elimination of certain activities or involve capital expenditure.

Using the previous example of triple-handling product, a solution may be to install a conveyor. As simple as it may seem, without mapping the processes some of the “obvious” ideas may not have surfaced. The process owner is also responsible for championing the improvement(s) to completion. And what is completion?


There is no finish line or stopping point with lean manufacturing—it is continual. Once waste (fat) is removed from your manufacturing process you certainly don’t want to add any back. Continual evaluation and monitoring of the processes will engage all workers and change the mindset from considering lean manufacturing to be cutting labor to it being a living process to make your facility lean, profitable and sustainable.

John E. Johnson has more than 20 years in the meat industry and is a Senior Member of the Institute of Industrial Engineers and a Board Certified Professional Ergonomist. He is the author of Stainless Performance Program, a roadmap to improve business processes.