Taking lean to the next level

Taking lean to the next level
Taking lean to the next level

Plexus' continuous improvement director, David Maddison says that Lean Six Sigma can only be successful where continuous improvement is a part of the organisational aerospace manufacturing culture. The fast pace of electronics development in the military and aerospace market is very different to that of twenty years ago. Today, the regulations that need to be met remain just as demanding but the time from conception to production is continually being pushed down and products are increasingly pure electronics.

These extremely stringent regulations mean, however, that when designing and manufacturing for this sector it is essential to keep a close track of every element of and every stage in a product's progress.

The majority of today's global aerospace OEMs face tremendous pressure to lower costs and reduce a product's time to market. Whilst time to market is typically not the highest priority in aerospace product development, the pace of innovation is still very important. Short lead-times can be critical to an OEM's success and the management team has to keep its focus on minimising the time it takes to introduce new concepts onto the market.

To achieve this, all aspects of the product realisation process need to be evaluated, with minimising waste a priority. How that process is managed is essential for an efficient product development and launch, with particular focus on the importance of a waste-free supply chain and the explicit need to bring about the cultural change associated with this approach.

It has become obligatory for electronics manufacturers to drive continuous improvement into every area of business performance. In the 1990s the application of Lean Six Sigma principles to the production process became the way forward for the serious manufacturer. Both have been associated with manufacturing in all its forms for a number of years and lean as we know it today started with the development of the Toyota Production System (TPS) in the 1940s.

However, what has now been established is that while the benefits of Lean Six Sigma can be attributed to the effective use of its methodology, principles and tools; sustainability can only be achieved by creating a culture where change is embraced at every level and in every area of the organisation.

During the last 30 years, the manufacturing industry worldwide has increasingly been driven to be more effective and reduce operating costs. It has been found though that Lean Six Sigma improvements within the manufacturing area do not typically present as big an opportunity as initially thought in comparison to those that are found in the rest of the value stream.

Waste and variation are everywhere: existing in every process and every interaction between humans, systems and functions. They create performance issues, soak up resources and affect customer satisfaction. They also threaten health and safety and, potentially, even job security.

Beating those defect blues

Increasingly, the emphasis in mature Lean Six Sigma manufacturing operations has been around achieving zero defects - creating products that can be manufactured on processes that are engineered to run at an optimal capability level and produce little, if no, variation. This is especially important in the aerospace sector where even the most minor variation can prove catastrophic.

This means that there is now an increased focus on the quality within, and control of, the supply chain with a switch in emphasis for the designers to focus on Lean Six Sigma to create defect-free products. The knock-on effect of this change is that equipment suppliers also have to develop processes that can operate at Six Sigma quality levels and the supply chain needs to deliver components and materials that fall within Six Sigma quality levels. However, despite all the good intentions and increased attention paid in these areas, there still remains room for improvement.

Any aerospace electronics manufacturer that still employs inspection and testing, on receipt of purchased products, as a means of protecting the customer from receiving poor quality goods, should review its whole supplier development strategy from a Lean Six Sigma perspective. Today the emphasis has to be to drive improvement back into the supply base and engineer-in the quality of supplied product. If these tactics are employed effectively, the consequence is a significant reduction in the requirement to inspect and test.

This means that supply chain management is increasingly being looked at and has become a key area with a measurable impact on the value stream. Lean Six Sigma development of the supply chain can lead to significant benefits in many areas as well as a significant improvement in delivery performance. There will also be an inventory reduction, which decreases the inventory holding space needed. The knock-on effect of this is less working capital required with subsequent cash cycle improvement and lower operating margins.

The impact of change

However, aerospace manufactures cannot afford to rely on just replicating Toyota's lean principles. They need to consider the psychological impact that new working methods will have on the employees. The lack of insight into this requirement is one of the main reasons that some have failed to sustain Lean Six Sigma. To prevent failure it is critical for the executives and leaders that are moving the operating philosophy towards Lean Six Sigma to understand about the human reaction to change. This way they will be able to impact directly the effective management of the change introduction that will ultimately define whether implementation is successful or not.

Adoption of Lean Six Sigma principles goes a long way towards identifying and removing waste and variation. To be sustainable, however, it is essential to create an environment where continuous improvement is a part of the organisational culture. It is only then that Lean Six Sigma can be successful within all areas of aerospace manufacturing.

On a final note, after over 70 years of lean at Toyota, the company still believes that it still has a long way to go to remove waste entirely from its value streams. So whilst continuous change is being implemented there is always room at every stage in a product's progress for further improvement to ensure zero defects. This will, in turn, bring down costs and the time involved getting it onto the aerospace market on schedule and at the right price.


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