Putting the Puzzle Together: Lean Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement

Brandon Wright
Contributing Writer

Manufacturers are seeking ways to remain competitive in challenging markets, and many are exploring how Lean manufacturing and continuous improvement can expand opportunities. There are a number of misconceptions regarding the relationship between the terms Lean manufacturing and continuous improvement. While conflating terms in business and manufacturing is nothing new, it’s crucial to start with some clear explanations of some key general terms to understand better. Manufacturers interested in implementing or expanding Lean tactics can benefit from taking a closer look at these concepts to determine what processes already align with Lean manufacturing and continuous improvement and which do not. For anyone unsure whether Lean manufacturing and continuous improvement are the same thing, keep reading. Let’s start with getting a better handle on what Lean manufacturing is—and what it is not.

What Is the Difference Between Lean Manufacturing and Manufacturing? 

Lean manufacturing definition: Lean manufacturing is a system driven to eliminate waste and any activities that do not add value to the business. Many often use the terms Lean manufacturing and Lean production interchangeably, and companies may use vastly different techniques to achieve lean manufacturing principles. 

Efficiency is the hot word in Lean manufacturing. But for many, it’s easier to grasp what Lean manufacturing is by identifying what it is not—and it is not traditional manufacturing. In traditional manufacturing, businesses often push out product based on sales predictions. No business model loves waste, but traditional manufacturing takes the view that waste is part of the overall process. Traditional manufacturing also relies on systems to perform as designed and places much of the burden of performance on the employees and how well or poorly they complete tasks. 

Lean manufacturing requires a considerable shift in mindset. When a company sets the goal of eliminating waste as a target, it causes the business to move towards examining how to make the processes themselves more efficient. Rather than pushing product out, in Lean manufacturing, customers pull the product and process along. Because customer demand drives Lean manufacturing, it can often respond far more quickly to unusual changes, and this vastly reduces turnaround time. 

Is Continuous Improvement Part of Lean Management? 

Continuous improvement is an integral aspect of Lean management principles. The Lean management concept is all about the reduction of waste in processes, and companies work to achieve this efficiency through a mindset of continuous improvement. Essentially, there is always room for improvement—things can always get more efficient. Continuous improvement is the vehicle that drives a company towards efficiency. 

Lean management always includes continuous improvement, but the continuous improvement that some companies use is not always based on Lean management. Lean continuous improvement is strategy-driven—there are goals to achieve. Yes, improvement is ongoing, but using Lean techniques to meet specific goals and benchmarks creates a more productive focus.  

What is Lean Continuous Improvement? 

Lean continuous improvement requires a business to examine its process not just once but continuously. Think of it as a journey without a final destination. The continuous improvement process is often also referred to as the continuous improvement cycle. A company will identify an opportunity for change. After creating a plan, the company will try it out on a smaller scale, then analyze the outcome to check for any measurable difference. If the execution of the plan creates some improvement, the company will scale up the plan. This cycle usually results in incremental changes, although these changes often accrue significant results over time. Lean continuous improvement is an effective way to make substantial positive improvements while minimizing the risks that often accompany implementing sweeping policy changes overnight. 

Strategy in Motion: A Guide to Project Implementation and Operational Tracking

If It Ain’t Broke, Should You Fix It?

Lean manufacturing relies on continuous improvement methodologies because it believes that any process can improve, even if it is already working. The focus has shifted from whether a process works to how that process can work better. Lean companies don’t stop working on becoming more efficient just because a process is resulting in a profit. Processes that work can still produce a lot of waste which costs everyone from operator to enterprise level. In Lean manufacturing, there are many different types of waste that Lean targets, including overproduction, inventory, and extra processing.  

Tips for Implementing Continuous Improvement Manufacturing 

A company dedicated to Lean culture will apply continuous improvement methodologies to many different areas within the company. Some examples of continuous improvement in manufacturing include: 

  • Involving everyone—If the enterprise level imposes continuous improvement without involving the employees doing the actual work every day, it could breed resentment and cause employees to disengage. It is essential that employees feel some investment and are actively participating in the continuous improvement process. There are many ways to drive positive engagement and a sense of ownership. 

  • Seek feedback—Companies that are most successful at creating Lean cultures are the ones that actively seek feedback from employees and anyone else that participates in the processes. When employees feel that the company is taking them seriously, they are more likely to participate in continuous improvement activities. Feedback can be a constructive barometer that informs the enterprise level of why things are working or not working. 

  • Waste Reduction—With Lean, waste can happen anywhere in any process. It can occur when an error results in a non-compliant product, but waste also occurs when employees spend excessive time performing a task or when too much inventory sits in a warehouse. Continuous improvement seeks to address how systems can prevent non-compliance, how the time-eating task can be streamlined or possibly even eliminated, and how a company can reduce inventory by speeding up turnaround time. 

  • Time Valuation—Continuous improvement focuses on seeking an immediate solution to a problem. Time is just as much of a resource as the raw materials that make the product. Companies can and do waste time, and in Lean continuous improvement, real-time troubleshooting takes precedence over searching for some ‘perfect’ solution. Additionally, valuing time also means examining processes to eliminate rework waste and to identify ways to make the process faster, allowing employees to redirect their time to other tasks. 

When companies implement continuous improvement correctly, the results can empower employees to feel they have an active hand in making changes and seeking solutions. Traditional manufacturing often emphasizes employees following strict protocols without deviation. Their opinions and feedback are not incorporated into policymaking. Change comes from the top-down only and discourages innovation from the very people who are performing the processes on a daily basis. A Lean culture that promotes continuous improvement motivates everyone to participate in solving problems because everyone understands how it benefits them. 

When Continuous Improvement Isn’t Sustainable 

Continuous improvement is not a magic wand that companies can wave to fix waste problems in an instant. There are many reasons why companies are unsuccessful at implementing continuous improvement policies. Getting everyone to understand the ongoing nature—the continuous part—is vital. With a single problem, a company can come up with a solution and fix the problem. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Continuous improvement does not have a start or an end, which can feel uncomfortable unless a company can build a continuous improvement culture. Continuous improvement is most sustainable when companies: 

  • Engage employees 

  • Resist the temptation to take shortcuts 

  • Implement continuous improvement in a Lean culture 

  • Have a clear vision for which processes to prioritize 

  • Can get stakeholders and suppliers on board with the culture 

Continuous Improvement is a Valuable Lean Tool 

Calling the Lean philosophy the tortoise in that fabled comparison is a bit oversimplified, but slow and steady really are hallmarks of successful Lean implementation. Continuous improvement is a valuable tool to drive the incremental positive changes that support efficiency. Great Lean companies do not simply do more with less because that can put incredible strain on the employees. A better catchphrase might be that Lean companies work smarter, not harder.