Lean manufacturing in post-pandemic world

July 1, 2020

 by Michał Matejczyk


Did Lean Manufacturing survived crisis?

Do you work in a company that works in accordance with the Lean Manufacturing, TPM or WCM? Before starting the crisis, did you think about starting implementation? Are you wondering if these solutions have any meaning in a world changed by the current situation? Well you’re not the only one.

Since the beginning of the restrictions associated with coronavirus, I talk almost every day to my friends who are responsible for continuous improvement in their companies and everyone talks about their doubts and what they hear in their companies. Today, more than ever, arguments are being raised that negate the meaning of such deployments. Does Lean or TPM still viable option? After all, the basis of these solutions is to minimize losses, companies are looking for and eliminating every manifestation of Muda, Muri, Mura, most often focusing on Muda (because it is the easiest), one of which is excessive inventory – and this mean optymised supply chain


Such allegations are nothing new – during the previous crisis, James Womack said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal:

The media always pretty much reacts the same way, that the world is being disrupted because we have Just-In-Time Supply Chains


And it cannot be denied that companies in the first phase of the crisis suffered most due to the break in supply chains (apart from employee issues). Those of them that had higher stocks of raw materials could produce longer, while companies that until recently were set as an example of efficiency, the most “lean”, with low inventory levels, unfortunately, quickly lost the ability to continue of their production.


This is how it looked, right? Well, you don’t argue with the facts. What else with their interpretation.


In fact, no system or management method was ready for today’s situation. Nobody predicted this, and most often the level of our inventory was caused by (depending on how our company works) habit, market or accepted parameterization of processes. The current situation takes place for the first time in the history of global Supply Chains, and keeping high levels of inventory is always a waste of money.

But because a lot of companies are in real problems, they lose liquidity, some unfortunately go bankrupt, it is natural to try to rationalize what is happening and find a responsible one. And who better suits the guilty than the methodologies saying that excessive stocks are a waste and you have to fight them.

It cannot be denied that part of my environment – Consultants – has definitely contributed to the negative perception of Lean or WCM. Probably everyone has heard stories about consultants walking around production or warehouses, showing visible stocks of materials or WIP and saying that they are too large and have to be cut, not always offering a meaningful explanation why (except for word „Muda”, which should explain everything by it self) or not proposing the real solution to the problem (the question whether sometimes the reason was a language barrier, and not the consultant himself). Another example of the not-so-good impression Lean could leave in companies is one of the key tools – One Piece Flow. My clients have repeatedly told me, how they were tried to convince, that only production in one piece makes sense, in every respect and always. Without paying attention to the specifics of their production equipment or even current technology. And here comes the key question – is the problem really the methodology or the skills of those responsible for translating it into the real world? After all, it is not written anywhere in Lean that if technically 4 products can be produced in one takt, we have to deliberately limit productivity and do only one.

Literal attachment to the methodology description in the books, without a flexible approach to implementation, always causes a problem. In my experience, there is no such thing as implementation according to any theory – you should always be based on common sense and wise suited to the needs of a given company. Because every company and even plant is different.

A great example of such an approach is a Polish company which we have supported for several years in the field of WCM implementation, with several production plants in the world producing exactly the same product. Despite the use of a very standardized methodology, detailed in the manuals and generally identical production lines, each implementation was different. The plant in Poland, UK, Dubai and India required adaptation of the implementation to the local situation. Different culture, different people, different law.

In my opinion, methodologies such as Lean, TPM, WCM have not “worn out” or have ceased to be valid. Their fundamental foundations and assumptions are still current and crucial for the efficiency of companies, the current situation does not change much here. On the contrary, organizations whose operation is based on reasonable implemented programs have a great advantage. Why?

Focusing on tools such as One Piece Flow, inventory management or 5S, it is very easy to forget that the basis of these methodologies is not really tools, rules and acronyms, but a change in the culture of the organization, approach to the role of managers and employees and their participation in companies functioning. We are gradually moving from typical top-down management to the bottom-up version through employee involvement in Continuous Improvement processes and broadly all processes.


Organizations living in constant change are much better prepared to adapt to the new situation. For such companies and their employees, the fact that we have new solutions, we have to regularly change something in workplace, introduce new technologies, modify the layout or learn something new – it is their normal way of operating. Their quick switch to other modes of operation or changes in the production process technology is possible thanks to the involvement of its employees – which is supported by solutions such as Lean or WCM. Equally important, a well-organized company will always be able to come back to operation faster and more efficiently after the current situation is over, achieving the required efficiency and profitability parameters faster.

Solutions such as Lean, WCM or TPM still make sense and have huge application in every industry. What will change in the near future in companies (everyone, not only those with Lean or WCM) is parameterization of some processes – and companies with implemented modern production management methods, with standardized processes, engaged employees and understanding of customer needs, will carry out the required changes and will come back to effective action faster.


About the author:

Michał Matejczyk

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