In recent years, much attention has been placed on lean manufacturing: the active elimination of waste from any manufacturing process with the objective to maximize value to the customer. Traditionally, this has meant getting rid of excess inventory, creating a continuous flow in production, organizing work groups logically, simplifying the manufacturing process, just-in-time raw materials delivery, and minimizing defects and waste.
The next step in bringing a competitive advantage to your company is building upon lean manufacturing methods by applying an agile manufacturing methodology. This involves even more emphasis on providing rapid response to changing customer demand. Within an agile framework, local manufacturing becomes advantageous in satisfying customers quickly with personalized products and services. Existing organizational structures, however, can be an obstacle to becoming truly agile and should be analyzed holistically.
Agile Manufacturing Explained
In defining agile manufacturing there are five key factors to consider: customer focused product design, fully connected IT, supply chain cooperation, employee skill-sets, and full company involvement.
Customer Focused Product Design
Consumers expect more personalized attention than ever before. This extends not only to rapid service but also to the products they order. An agile organization will keep on top of market demand and, as well, design the production process so that desired product variations are accounted for in the production planning.
Fully Connected IT
Quick response to market demand is difficult without an integrated technology environment. Information flow needs to be accurate and in real time. This enables all areas of an agile manufacturing organization to fulfill orders correctly and efficiently. Everyone involved, from sales teams and customer service agents to line workers, needs to be on top of reliable production and market information. This information, of course, must be supported with the ability to act upon it quickly.
Supply Chain Cooperation
Agile methodologies involve both internal teams and external alliances. Suppliers can only respond quickly when armed with adequate production flow information, and shippers need to know what to expect for rapid delivery to end-users. Strategically, sometimes it is helpful when new alliances include a partner that is involved with some part of the product build-out or design. In sum, your supply chain must be aligned with your customer demand.
Employee training for agile involves learning basic information on new production practices in addition to education in a new, agile, customer-driven format. Expecting employees to understand the rapid changes and adaptations they will be involved in requires intensive training and an acknowledgement that a cultural change is occurring.
Full Company Involvement
An agile transition will not work if it is relegated to the team level. Company structure needs to be part of the transformation to becoming agile. The changeover usually works better if an operation is introducing a new plant or expanding an older one. That way, the focus can be on bringing the entire new area up to agile standards. Requesting workers handle operations as they did previously while expecting them to concentrate on setting up an agile manufacturing module is doomed to fail.
Moving an organization from a lean manufacturing mode to an agile manufacturing company with swift response to customers, offering them what they want when they want it, requires planning. It will be a path involving everyone in the company and it will change the old order dramatically, but it is rewarding, supports growth, and provides a huge competitive advantage to the brave managers that decide to walk down that path.