A business leader in the plastics industry needs guts, fortitude and gumption to plunge into the world of lean manufacturing.
Often, it seems, the world of lean fails to draw a company's serious long-term commitment and enthusiastic embrace. That can convert to business as usual and, for some, consolidation, closure and possible financial ruin.
Lean manufacturing has roots going back nearly a century - far beyond Plastics News' founding in 1989, although processors didn't regularly claim to be ``lean'' disciples until about four years ago. The philosophy evolved during the 1980s, mainly through the Toyota Motor Corp. production system, which drew in part from early Ford Motor Co. practices and the continuous way supermarkets restock shelves.
Lean manufacturing is applicable across a range of processes and usually involves short, accurate part runs, repeatable quick mold changes and well-thought-out mold designs. Up to 10 percent of plastics processors have instituted credible lean programs, up from about 5 percent in 1999, according to industry consultants and trainers.
Along with processing achievements, lean-practice advocates such as James Womack, Jerry Feingold, Tom Luyster, Rick Harris and Drew Locher have observed foibles:
* In a small Mexican town, an automotive supplier uses precise parts in a fabrication process. The process looks brilliant until a visitor goes into the back room. Warehoused to the rafters are a gazillion parts that arrive in containers from Germany. The operators try to supply global needs from one molding plant in Germany. While machine utilization in Germany is high and may be perceived as lean, lead-time and inventory volumes fail the efficiency test in North America.
* A midsize thermoformer in the East envisioned changing molds quickly. A consultant called it a ``magic dust'' solution. The owner acknowledged the need to invest in tooling and machinery, but then balked at adding a pre-setter to the team, buying hand cranks to turn screws or replacing a plant manager ill-equipped to adjust. Implementing lean manufacturing is not magic: It does take common sense.
* Too many processors expect a reward from a short-term commitment. Perhaps a firm adopts small pieces of so-called 5S principals - sort out what is not needed, straighten what must be kept, shine everything that remains, standardize throughout the facility and sustain through discipline and goal setting - without changing the parameters for Every Part Every Interval, a lean concept. A processor still running large batches erodes any possible benefit from other initiatives.
Becoming lean in business starts with a strong leader, said Feingold, president of the Continuous Improvement Consultancy in Ventura, Calif. That leader understands the futility of quick fixes or panaceas, the urgency of changing to survive and the need for a revolutionary call to action.
A niche exists for small, agile firms able to cut lead times, said Harris, president of Harris Lean Systems Inc. of Murrells Inlet, S.C. Leadership is the key, even for small companies with an investment cycle longer than big players.
Womack addresses three broad questions to plastics processors: Where do you propose to do your molding and at what scale? Where are you getting your inputs, the biggest being resin? And how will you get along with customers?
A processor needs a workable system ``to get the right product to the right customer at an attractive price,'' which may mean six mold changes per shift, said Womack, president of Lean Enterprise Institute Inc. of Brookline, Mass. The nonprofit training, research and publishing company recently has seen increased demand for training workshops for processing industries such as plastics and food.
Many plastics processors toy with lean manufacturing, but few seriously change fundamental systems, Harris said. Perhaps 60-70 percent talk about adopting lean techniques, but ``in reality, less than 10 percent are doing it.''
Partial efforts usually fail. A week-long kaizen event may improve one area at the expense of another function. An upfront change may affect the first or second step, but may not do anything to an end process.
World influences will pressure processors to change or go out of business, Harris suggested. ``For some, it is too late. Those with the fortitude to go down the lean path will be successful.''
Locher, principal of Change Management Associates in Mount Laurel, N.J., noted the importance of maintenance. Larger companies, he said, often do a good job with maintenance, but smaller ones may lack suitable sophistication to complete the task. It is ``three to eight times more expensive to do reactive than proactive maintenance,'' he said.
Respondents to an LEI survey in January ranked common obstacles to implementing lean practices. Most of the 999 people replying were in the automotive, electronics and aerospace industries.
Backsliding to the old ways of working was cited by 36 percent, a lack of implementation know-how by 25 percent and the lack of a sense of urgency by 24 percent.
Among the other obstacles: varying resistance from middle management, hourly employees and supervisors; failure to remove those opposing change; and regarding lean manufacturing as the company's flavor of the month.
``The process is so simple that people don't believe it,'' said Luyster, president of Standard Lean Manufacturing Systems Inc. of Portage, Mich.
``Few companies are doing it in depth,'' he said. ``It does take a commitment, and it does take time. Traditionally, in the Western part of world, we want instant-coffee-type implementation. Open a jar, and all things happen.''
The usual short-term corporate outlook, however, means ``it will take another 20 years before [lean manufacturing] really starts to take hold in a major way,'' Luyster said.
Plastics processors need nerve and foresight to embark on lean manufacturing, but those making the changes improve their potential to survive in today's perilous business world.
Roger Renstrom is a Plastics News correspondent based in La Jolla, Calif.