Editor Kelly Carr and I just returned from a really excellent symposium, hosted by Whip Mix, in Louisville, Kentucky. The topic of the two-day program was lean manufacturing.* Going "lean" enables laboratories to recover valuable time and save money by streamlining their workflow and reevaluating their inventory needs. Needless to say, time is money and money saved here means being able to spend it there—in ways that enable you to have a competitive edge.
A panel of laboratory owners who've adopted lean thinking— making it the way they conduct their business—shared with attendees the before and after of their own operations. This provided all of us with a clear picture of how lean manufacturing works.
Implementing a lean strategy requires a paradigm shift—a dramatic change in the way you think about your business—and every staff member has to be on board with this to make it work. Their task—and yours—is to observe, examine and evaluate every detail of the lab's work processes and flow. You then use the information to simplify your operation, eliminate non-value-adding activities, create flow, and reduce waste and lead times.
Getting everyone on board may be the most difficult part of going lean. It's important that everyone understands that this is not a system designed to eliminate jobs; it's a system to improve everyone's work life.
For example, the owners at the podium noted that one way to do this may be to minimize, standardize, organize and store all instruments and tools in the same manner at each work station. By discarding all unused or mismatched tools, you can minimize inventory costs, reduce waste and make it easy to cross train and work at any bench.
Another strategy is to work in small batches. Rather than pouring 100—or even 20—models at once, break the process down into batches of five models each. Technicians may think they're being efficient by mixing stone once a day but that's not seeing the big picture. Batch processing makes for better workflow in all departments throughout the lab and also enables rush cases to be easily incorporated into the cycle.
Thinking lean is a continuous process that doesn't end. When work isn't flowing through the lab continually, there's waste. If you think of it that way, the lean process is really a growth strategy that enables you to add capacity.
If, at this particular point in time, you have more capacity than work, you may believe the need to "think lean" doesn't apply to you. However, downtime is the best time to streamline your workflow.
At the close of this highly informative program, Whip Mix acknowledged Mike Young, Perry and Young Dental Laboratory, Aurora, Colorado; Tim Tyndall, CDT, Creative Expressions, in Winterville, North Carolina; and Bob Edmonds, in absentia, Edmonds Dental Prosthetics, Springfield, Missouri, for their lean efforts and for leading the way to lean.
P.S. Whip Mix did not just host the program, it also practices lean manufacturing. To further illustrate the concepts of lean in action, the company took attendees on a tour of its facility pointing out the "befores" and "afters" in every department throughout its huge facility. (See Family-Owned Company Retools for the Future, LMT September 2008 in the Article Archives at www.LMTmag.com for more details.)
Once again, I have to hand it to the manufacturers in our community who continue to play a vital role as educators. With all the change going on, we need their support and input more than ever.
This is a good time to mark your calendar for LMT LAB DAY® in Chicago which will now have concurrent manufacturer-sponsored programs on both Friday and Saturday! In addition, for the first time ever, the exhibit hall opens Friday, from 2pm-6pm.
*Recommended reading: Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation by James Womack