How Can Technology Advance Our Lean Effort??

Nov. 20, 2023
Digital works best when it’s pulled in to add value for specific process improvements.

Lean has played a significant role for the past few decades in driving efficiency across manufacturing organizations by providing people with the data and methods for eliminating waste, improving factory flow and focusing on customer value. Lean techniques have promoted simple, intuitive visual and analytical approaches to decision making, problem-solving and continuous improvement. 

The “digital lean” movement stays true to lean principles while taking advantage of the real-time and data-centric techniques from smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0.  

Digital lean amplifies the core strengths of both methodologies. It works best when the operations improvement team pulls in technology to add value for specific process improvements and avoids pushing technology because there is good buzz about it. When deployed to support people and process gains, digital lean unlocks even greater levels of efficiency, quality, velocity and adaptability in operations.

Extending Value

Digital lean achieves gains with technologies like automated data collection, analytics platforms, digital dashboards, artificial intelligence and integrated workflow systems. It amplifies both the measurable performance and qualitative employee-engagement gains.

The following illustrates the added value that well-placed digital technology can bring to a lean effort in three key areas:

1. Reducing Waste

Reducing downtime through predictive maintenance:  Unplanned downtime is wasted time and disruptive. Planned maintenance on a fixed schedule, regardless of equipment condition, is also wasteful. Instead, advanced sensors for conditions such as vibration, force and temperature can be installed on machines, monitored in real-time and analyzed by AI-based predictive maintenance algorithms to trigger maintenance when needed based on machine usage and monitored conditions.

Reducing defects with real-time detection:  Lean has always had a focus on the waste from out-of-spec quality, material scrap and rework. Automated in-process quality monitoring through sensors, computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) can detect small deviations, including deviations not visible through traditional methods.  It can spot in real-time when a process is trending out of its control range, triggering warnings and corrective action.

Reducing waste through enhanced value stream mapping (VSM):  The typical VSM is infrequently conducted and based on estimated processing times. Digital process monitoring allows the enterprise to perform VSM with precision processing times, error rates, variations and other statistics that are not readily available with more traditional manual tracking.

2. Reducing Inventory

Minimizing inventory waste through automated material tracking: Auto-ID technology such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors and advanced analytics make it easier to accurately track raw materials, work-in-progress and finished inventory location and levels. The consumption of raw materials is monitored in real-time and triggers replenishment automatically. This reduces unnecessary purchases and out-of-stock due to data errors or not locating inventory. Replenishment levels can be lowered with confidence.

Improving flow with automated movement and handling: Lean has long recognized that any movement of material is less than ideal. Practical considerations often limit the ability to rearrange equipment at a production site. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and cobots make it practical to move smaller production batch sizes to achieve continual flow of material, lessening the labor wasted in manual movement. With sensors, routing instructions and AI, the AGV is automatically placed at the work center in anticipation of completion. From the perspective of the part, it is continuously moving from workstation to workstation with no wait time.

3. Improving People Utilization

Improving work rhythm with real-time digital dashboards: Smart dashboards are configured to automatically use collected data to generate charts, diagrams and other displays that support everyday decision-making processes. Digital andon displays mounted in hallways around the plant are updated in real time. Accurate, timely data is key to improving flow and using people effectively.

Reducing errors with digital work instructions: Operators review the latest standard operating procedures (SOPs), work instructions and checklists on monitors or mobile devices. This can improve consistency and reduce waste due to operator error.

Eliminating clerical steps with a paperless factory: “Pushing paper” is a form of wasted worker time and expertise. Every instance of a person transcribing information or data entry is non-value-added. The paperless factory eliminates this waste as well as errors introduced through manual data collection.

Improving talent use with online training: Workers are better utilized when they learn to perform a wider range of tasks. Tablets, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are becoming more popular to train workers on new tasks, without risking the impact of learner mistakes on the actual product, especially when the potential mistakes would be a safety concern or costly scrap.

Where Do I Start?

Perform a variant of the typical value-stream mapping technique and include the steps involved with handling the paperwork. Review the wasted time and errors in your paper-based processes. Consider the improved productivity through eliminating manual steps.

Better data will give you more visibility into the value stream and areas of waste, constraints and bottlenecks.

In a ‘What if’ mode of thinking, prioritize your areas of opportunity. Over the past several years, commercial technology solutions have reduced the need for custom solutions. This is making digital lean more available and cost-effective for all size operations.

  • Do a use-case search on available technology and identify solutions that are relevant to your business.
  • Debrief with other companies that have deployed similar solutions.
  • Go into the selection process with a clear understanding of what your business needs and stick to that plan.

It can be tempting to envision a big transformation by having a long-term end state in mind. Take into consideration that technology is rapidly evolving, and your end state will inevitably change. The key is for each step in your journey to build on the prior one and lay a good foundation for expanding future capabilities. Keep your options open.

Do not underestimate the change management effort. The team will need to develop competence in smart manufacturing technology. Throughout this process, engage those employees who will be most affected. You will make better decisions and have less friction during implementation.

Digital lean harnesses advanced technologies to supercharge traditional lean manufacturing. It provides real-time insights to drive faster, more informed decision-making. It identifies and corrects inefficiencies and waste with higher velocity. Embracing digital lean equips businesses with the agility and adaptability needed to thrive in today's rapidly evolving market landscape.


Based in the New York City area, Doug Berger is founder and president of the non-profit Industry Reimagined 2030, which is on a mission to revitalize U.S. manufacturing at a national scale. 

Based in the Los Angeles area, Conrad Leiva is vice president of ecosystem and workforce development at CESMII--the Smart Manufacturing Institute.


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