A: I have a lot of people tell me that they build custom product and don’t see any way that Lean can be successfully implemented in their shop. After learning more about your business, I conclude that although you don’t make cookie-cutter product, you also don’t make what would truly be defined as “custom” or one-off product. Your website includes a catalogue of product and offers the customer options so they can customize their order. I would term your business as one of mass customization, which is the category that many business would be considered in today as they try to be more things to more customers. The short answer to your question is, yes, Lean can be applied in a mass customized venue.
The reason I can say that with such assurance is because Lean is not product focused, it is process focused. Every product, custom or otherwise, goes through a series of repeatable process steps. It is the process step that you will be applying Lean thinking to, not the output. However, I will add a qualifier to that statement by saying that you can apply Lean thinking to the engineering and design phases of product development, which would have a positive effect on your output.
I have helped a number of mass customizers transform their operation to the Lean business model. Pacific Manufacturing in Phoenix, AZ, and Hallagan Manufacturing in Newark, NY are both mass customizers of upholstered furniture where Lean thinking is being applied very effectively. Some of their results include a reduction of manufacturing space by 50%, reduction in inventory of 80%, improvement in on-time delivery from the low 80 percentile to 100%, reduced cost, increased throughput, and implementation of one-piece flow.
Cabinet manufacturers, Busby Cabinets in Alachua, FL, and Hunter Trim and Cabinet in Ft. Worth, TX, are mass customizers of cabinetry and millwork product. I have featured both of them in my monthly column in FDMC so there are plenty of references to their transformation process in the FDMC archives.
As a final example for you of how applicable Lean thinking is to any business segment, one of my customers was the emergency room operation in a hospital. That is the closest example I have seen to defining a truly custom output. Every person coming in the emergency room had a different reason for being there. Some were simple fevers, cuts, and bruises, while others were true trauma patients. Even in that environment we focused on applying Lean thinking to the processes involved in treating patients and not the individual issues or concerns of the patients. The objective of the hospital Lean journey was to reduce the time for admitting, triage, and treating a patient to improve throughput and capacity of the emergency room. Through the application of Lean tools and techniques their team successfully reduced the time by 50% thus doubling throughput and capacity and increasing revenue for the hospital. The objective was achieved without increasing staff or capital expenditure.