Lean manufacturing's hardly a new concept. In fact, at this point, the concept is notable not so much for its novelty as for its staying power and name recognition. Ask someone to define Kaizen, Six Sigma or Total Quality, and you're apt to get a blank stare. But ask them if their operation is "lean," and you'll likely get an intelligent answer. They may not be up on all the details, but they'll almost certainly know that going lean has nothing to do with selections in the company cafeteria or a human resources boondoggle involving employee fitness.
At its most fundamental level, a lean approach to manufacturing entails just what you'd expect: stripping away the excess. Going lean means cutting costs and boosting efficiency at every stage of the manufacturing process. By now, it's fair to say that lean manufacturing—or simply "lean," as it's more commonly known today—is well rooted in global manufacturing operations. It's proved particularly popular among manufacturers trying to fend off emerging low-cost competitors.
Given the close ties between manufacturing and the supply chain function, no one should be surprised to hear that now, leading-edge logistics operations are going lean too. In a new report on the lean movement, researchers and analysts from Georgia Southern University, Supply Chain Visions and Oracle Corp. define the term in the context of logistics and supply chain operations. The report's authors write: "Lean is a systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste (non-value-added activities) through continuous improvement by flowing the product at the pull of the customer in pursuit of perfection."
The authors also point out that although it's billed as a "cutting edge" approach to manufacturing, the edge really isn't all that sharp. In fact, they note that the basic concept of lean can be traced all the way back to Henry Ford's assembly lines circa 1920, when the notion of continuous flow was first introduced. Still, as with so many business management concepts, what's old has become new again. And so, it seems, lean is all the rage.
If you're a logistics professional and all of this comes as a surprise, we have some bad news and some good news for you. First the bad. If you haven't been looking at ways to extend your company's lean manufacturing practices into your logistics functions, you are, I'm afraid, behind the curve. The lean movement has advanced to the point where many big thinkers are already looking at ways to extend the movement beyond logistics to the total supply chain, right down to the point where the customer actually picks up a product and tosses it in the shopping cart. (Think in terms of that utopian scenario in which inventory at the store shelf level is precisely in sync with buyer demand Ö no more, no less.)
The good news is that if you've been working in logistics for a while, you're probably already familiar with the underpinnings of a lean logistics operation. In all probability, you've already spent a lot of time thinking about improving demand management, reducing waste, standardizing processes and crossfunctional collaboration. If so, you may be "leaner" than you think.
Still, it's all too evident that Corporate America has a ways to go. As the authors of the Georgia Southern report write, "...it is clear from the survey results that many organizations have yet to transfer [what they've learned about lean from the manufacturing operation] to the supply chain. Yet, while the adoption rate is low, the benefits are seen as quite high." As for those benefits, it seems the main one is the ability to improve the company's bottom line. That's not an opportunity you want to miss.