No One Does Lean Like the Japanese

Or at least that’s the title of an article in the July 10, 2006 BusinessWeek. It’s good to see Lean production being featured in mainstream business magazines like this even if it’s likely to stir up the emotions of quite a few Lean manufacturing advocates in the U.S.
The story of Matsushita’s factory in Saga, Japan is interesting but hardly justifies the title of the claim that no one does Lean like the Japanese. The Saga factory cut their production lead-time from 2.5 days to 40 minutes. They did this with the help of robots and software to help them implement flexible Lean manufacturing cells. The factory
…makes a batch of 500 phones per eight-hour shift, vs. 1,500 phones in three days before the most recent changes.
It sounds like a fairly standard Lean manufacturing conversion from batch to one-piece flow, the type that’s going on all over the U.S.A. and other countries.
It’s a familiar story. The factories need to become more agile in order to produce a wider mix of products and perform quick changeovers, responding to changing demand. By the time new products near peak volumes they have moved to lower cost countries.
The article describesthe practice of yokoten or “horizontal implementation” of copying good ideas tested and implemented at one factory to another.
Weeks after Hirata and Tsuru gave the green light to the new layout, six other Matsushita plants in China, Malaysia, Mexico, and Britain started copying the setup.
Intel is well-known for their “copy exactly” policy of taking improvements and standards set at one plant and implementing it across all other plants. Yokoten is something that more non-Japanese companies doing Lean manufacturing should definitely copy.
Designing prodcuts to fit the production process (rather than having the product designs dictate process variations) is another Lean practice that Matsushita demosntrates. Smart, but the best Lean companies outside of Japan do this.
Not everyone does Lean. Like the Japanese, those who do Lean manufacturing need to use all available technologies, tools and strategies to stay ahead of the competition and responding to changing market needs profitably.