The Lean Manufacturing experience in Japan

Posted 25th August 2017

At a time when Industrie 4.0, big data and smart factories are gaining increasing attention in the manufacturing industry, it can be easy to overlook the need for strong operations management as a foundation upon which new technologies can be implemented.

Last month, the Information Technology Management Program invited Dr Paul Smith of Shinka Management to provide a guest lecture on lean manufacturing. The talk focused on the benefits of strong operations management to allow companies to achieve high levels of safety, quality and productivity. 

Similar to many of the students attending CMUA, Paul undertook his post-grad studies abroad – in his case living in Japan for seven years and completing a masters and PhD in Engineering at Kyoto University. Paul was convinced that there was a niche that needed filling for Australians with a mix of both technical skills and a deep understanding of Japan’s culture and language. It was due to this background that he came to be involved with lean management and lean manufacturing. Paul’s focus is now on lean training, and in addition to running programs for clients locally and abroad, Paul has hosted industry leaders from over 40 countries on study tours to Japan to learn from some of the best lean practitioners in the world. 

During the lecture Paul introduced lean thinking and culture, and discussed its relevance to the information technology management professional and the future CIO. As the most senior executive in an organisation responsible for an enterprise’s information technology and systems, the CIO often plays a central role in business transformation projects. An understanding of the fundamentals of lean management is relevant in this role, as more and more we are seeing business transformation projects being labelled as lean or agile. These projects often miss the point that lean is a culture that is developed over years, not a one-off undertaking.

Paul provided an overview of how lean is implemented both in Japan and Australia, and shared some of the keys to successfully sustaining a lean culture within an enterprise. The lecture touched on some fundamental tools of lean manufacturing, including 5S, standard work and visual management, with photo and video examples from industry giants such as Toyota, Rinnai and Metal One.

Paul stressed that it is import for information technology professionals to consider process and culture first before rushing to implement technology-based solutions to management. He gave examples of how successful Japanese companies have sustained lean cultures over decades, through a process of continuous and relentless improvement, and a focus on removing waste from their processes. The outcomes in terms of productivity, quality and safety from these efforts are recognised globally.

A discussion with students followed relating to lean adoption outside of Japan, employee engagement, challenges faced by companies commencing their lean journeys, and implementation approaches ued by lean consultants such as Shinka Management.

This talk was the second guest lecture provided by Paul in recent years. A transcript of the first lecture together with photos from Japanese industry has been made available here: Introduction to Lean Manufacturing.