Flexible production model against lean production?

by iwolm
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The organizational model which focuses on the flexibility is better than the fragmented one of lean production?
Changing markets is generating a different way to produce and manage companies.
A company has a competitive advantage if it does not just have people with the necessary skills to deal with the immediate but it also has the resources to face tomorrow, that is if it has people willing to get involved, to change, flexible people, curious and with the desire to grow.
In this way the company will be ready to deal with the changes when they arrive..

The craft model

The flexibility has been transformed from a condition to improve to necessary condition to meet the challenges of these years.
You have to be flexible, not only to meet the demands of the traditional market, such as the reduced delivery times or the product demand only in particular periods, but flexibility has become a necessary element in order to have creativity and versatility in the company.
The flexibility is also a factor of active involvement of the people.

In recent years, more and more production have to catch the seasonality of products and meet the most varied demands.
The warehouse have lost part of their function to level the capacity, so the production is more directly linked to the performance of markets and sales.

In this context it is essential to have a significant workforce flexibility, not only through the use of external capacity, but also through internal flexibility.
The flexibility of human resources in production, in contrast to Taylorism, considers the use of people in areas that allow a broader view of the processes and tasks and not only the employ in heavily parceled areas.

This means that in the factories should be re-created situations similar to those of the craft, where the person has a much more complete product vision, a better production cycle knowledge and therefore his role in the company.
A complete view presupposes to have longer working cycles, of at least 1 hour, and no longer strictly repetitive as the classic ones of the assembly line, which duration is one or few minutes.
Longer cycles allow the person to “customize” his own workspace, while still providing the basis of predetermined parts to be produced: the takt time.

This view of the production organization is in contrast with the philosophy of lean production that looks more like the classic assembly line than the production cell, typical of the craft sector.
So which is the best organizational production model, the model that aims to maintain flexibility or the fragmented lean production one? In fact, neither one nor the other.

A new model of lean production

The challenge is to create a different view of lean that no longer needs to be focused on its most rigid meaning of exaggeratedly standardized working methods, therefore it should no longer be considered as a single pipe of crystal in which all things flow (citing Professor Bonazzi University of Turin), as the glass pipe is too fragile.

If something is not working properly and in an absolutely accurate way, the pipe breaks.
The lean production must be considered as a series of pipes or of disjoint segments, connected to each other by the presence of intermediate buffers or supermarket.

In this way it is no longer necessary that everything is perfectly synchronized, the system no longer has to be heavily stressed because the speed of the line can be self-regulated within the each segment.
If the pipe segment is sufficiently long, the workers who work inside have the possibility to express more flexibility as they can see and understand a most significant part of the product and of its production cycle and process.

Within each segment of pipe you should be autonomous work groups that follow the job rotation.
In this way, one abandons the concept of pure division of labor.
Thinking in this way you can smoothly move from a functional structure to a process structure.

The analysis of critical process involves the need for its understanding and thus it becomes indispensable to think for processes rather than functions.

Process Structure

So the key to achieve flexibility is to split the company in its key processes and to change all processes in the lean way as much as possible.
One way to transform the company into an organization driven by processes can be “make to order”, where a group of people conduct the delivery of the entire order.

In this organization the same person can handle more orders simultaneously (in parallel) and thus belong to multiple teams working simultaneously.
In any case, upstream of these organizational processes there is the flexibility in people’s way of thinking and the innovative and creative people are the most difficult to manage.

Design to Logistic

To activate the flexibility means to promote ideas, creativity and improvement, but it also involves thinking and organizational changes, high-impact, such as the need of technological aids.

The rotation of the people on the plants and machines reduces the capacity of control, which reduces the sensitivity of the person to grasp even the weakest malfunction signal.
Higher is the plant technology, bigger is the problem.

It is possible to minimize this danger by introducing dedicated figures whose primary task is to ensure maximum availability of machines and installations: the technical manager of the plant.
This person has to check the technological efficiency and to carry on organizational and technological solutions (maintenance and production), with a high level of technical responsibility.

Another impact is the flexibility introduced by the need to increase the skills to manage organizations and technologies.

You can no longer resort to low-skilled temporary work but the flexibility must be accompanied by a strategic flexibility built in the medium and long term that requires the activation of plans for training and skills, organization and management development.
This “double-flexibility” setting creates two types of factory employers: steady workers, highly skilled and temporary workers those with lower skills.
The difficulties that arise in the relationship between these two types of workers, sometimes accentuated by belonging to different cultures, must be addressed.

One way to address the problems introduced by the flexibility and reduce the costs that they entail, is to design and produce products and production processes with mushroom structure.

This means that the products must be very similar and so standardized in the first part of the process, while the differentiation must be activated as downstream as possible in the production process.
Therefore, the number of components that make up the product must be kept very low in the first part of the process and then proliferate in the final parts.
In this way there is a flexibility that coexists with standardization.

This model defined Design to Logistic allows to have a part of the production stable, repetitive and standardized, in the most upstream processes where the goals are the simplicity and efficiency, allowing at the same time to have a part of the processes places further downstream able to respond to customer needs and market changes (where the primary objective is flexibility).
The people who work in the two parts of the process (upstream and downstream) have to own different characteristics, professional backgrounds and education.

Picture by Jorge / CC BY

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