“We are a job shop.”
“We never do the same thing twice.”
These are common truths spoken by people who are struggling with how to apply lean production principles to their operation. They want to do better, but don’t see how something that originated in the relentless repetition of an automobile assembly line can work for them.
This is a reasonable reaction in the face of an overwhelming amount of literature and advice that is geared to these repetitive environments. An example of this is the common “elements of standard work” that come right out of Toyota and Shingijutsu:
- Repeating work sequence (standard work)
- Balanced to the takt time (which implies repetitive demand)
- Standard work-in-process (or standard in-process stock)
Another example is “Takt, Flow and Pull” as the key elements of just-in-time production.
All of these things are absolutely true, but as instances of more fundamental principles.
Can lean production principles be applied to a job shop? Absolutely. It just requires someone with a bit more experience who knows how to interpret the situation and apply the principles rather than dogmatically apply a standard toolbox. It’s like the difference between the author who applies the basics of creating a compelling story, and the performer who expertly interprets the script written by others.
I have run into a fair number of “job shops” over the last 20 or so years. This is what I have observed:
A fair percentage of them actually have underlying repetition. It is just obscured by the job shop mentality. That is, they run them like job shops, so they become job shops. Even if only a portion of the work is repetitive, slicing this off and stabilizing it creates that much more mental bandwidth for dealing with the rest of it.
But even the true job shops, the ones who do custom work never to see that customer again are experts at what they do.
Expertise comes from experience.
Experience, in turn, comes from having done it many times before.
There is something they are good at. Each job may be custom, but it is built up from basic elements – the things they are experts at doing. Identifying those elements can clear out a lot of the seeming complexity. True process then emerges as they focus on how those elements are executed and organized, and paying attention to the interactions between them, the people, the customer. Then they work on getting better and better at creating stable processes that may only be carried out one time. But even then, there is knowledge to be gained that can be incorporated into doing it better next time, and that is the essence of kaizen.
Key point: If you are struggling with how to apply these principles, and aren’t getting answers that make sense to you, then (bluntly) you are talking to the wrong people. Keep at it until you find someone who can look at your situation and ask the right questions.