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Lean production and digitalisation – creating synergies

How can you combine the principles of lean production with digitalisation processes?

As the digital transformation pushes forward, artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly taking centre stage, with initiatives such as the German federal government’s Artificial Intelligence Strategy causing quite a stir. But as discussion of AI and algorithms continues to grow, we have to make sure we don’t lose sight of the human factor. Even though it might not seem like it sometimes, the individual worker plays a vital role – not just in lean production, but for digitalisation too. Whilst one kind of digital strategy is based on modifying a company’s business model, the other focuses on optimising existing internal processes. Companies opting for the latter can make use of approaches they’re already familiar with from having implemented lean production, with the continuous improvement process (CIP) being the most noteworthy example. According to CIP, processes can never achieve a state of perfection, meaning there is always room for improvement. All that aside, manual work is still far from being consigned to the scrap heap.

Digitalisation in harmony with lean production concepts

Lean production has been around in Germany for quite some time. The experience they have gained from adopting lean production methods stands SMEs in the mechanical engineering sector in excellent stead for taking the first steps toward digitalisation. Improving operational excellence should, in any event, be the first move in a company’s digital transformation. Ideally, companies should be able to acquire knowledge at this early stage to improve their customers’ processes further down the line. By consistently optimizing their own business processes using digital technology, they will lower their costs and boost their efficiency for the long term. Here’s where you can’t help but notice a link with the traditional Japanese Kaizen philosophy (Kai meaning “change” and Zen “for the better”). Based on CIP, it is this very philosophy that offers huge potential for digitalisation.

Companies can only benefit from the knowledge of their staff.

The reason is that CIP promotes a positive attitude to mistakes, while also greatly valuing the role played by employees. After all, they are the ones who work where value is actually created, a place known as the “gemba”. Since companies can only benefit from the knowledge of their staff, they should explicitly support their workforce by adopting a bottom-up communication style. Already proven to be an effective tool for anchoring employees’ skills in corporate structures, in-house innovation labs provide employees with the space and freedom to seek vital inspiration. Internal future development teams have taken root too, helping products and workflows take shape with their creative ideas.

Using lean methods to shape a digital future

Workers in areas such as manual assembly, who contribute to continuous improvement with their practical know-know, are still the key to achieving an efficient production system. What’s more, the versatility of a manual work bench cannot be replaced by automated solutions. The most important aspect, however, concerns the cognitive skills that humans alone can currently command. Only humans can rethink processes to continuously improve them. Yet it would be wrong to insist on comparing humans with machines. It’s much more about using digital technology to take some of the strain off human workers and thereby enable them to make a greater contribution to creating value.

The item Engineeringtool makes an engineer’s job considerably easier.

On the shop floor, solutions such as tablet holders and arms for arranging state-of-the-art tablets at the work bench can improve efficiency. Information and instructions thus reach employees even more efficiently, especially because providing documents in a paperless format like this falls in line with ergonomic principles. But there’s another area where lean production and digitalisation come together in harmony. Programs such as the item Engineeringtool make an engineer’s job considerably easier and the item Engineeringtool now also includes components from the Lean Production Building Kit System. The end result is that the efficiency gains enshrined in the lean philosophy are played out in both the online design of factory equipment and in the subsequent use of the resultant solutions.

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