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Lean From the Ground Up

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Getting it right the first time is essential for builders of turnkey facilities, especially when the client expects a design that supports their processes and maximizes flow and efficiency using lean.

A major global design-build firm confronted this challenge when they made the short list for a large food processing plant to be built in the US.  In addition to demonstrating that they understood food processing, second-round bidders were asked to show how they would create a lean facility.

While the firm had a lean practitioner on staff, they decided that given the scope of the project, it made sense to bring in a partner to ensure that they had access to the lean experience that the customer was looking for.  Lean Advisors Inc. was selected to fill this role.

The challenge of lean design is that lean processes are sensitive to the spatial layout of the facility.  “A lean facility can allow a company to significantly outperform conventional plants,” says Larry Coté, President of Lean Advisors, “however, to make this work, designers have to understand the connections between the processes and the facility.”

For example, lean processes dictate a number of functional requirements.  These can include clear sightlines, minimal walking between processes, proximity of related processes, flexibility to accommodate changes in volume, and availability of tools and materials at the workplace.

When these relationships aren’t understood at the outset, the design-build process can turn into a nightmare of iterations, and in the worst case, the finished facility will be inadequate for the customer’s requirements.  “It’s critical that all members of the facility team understand the customer’s processes from end-to-end, not just the components,” says Coté.

Lean Advisors used a lean method called Value Stream Mapping (VSM) to ensure that the designers could see the big picture.  The first step was the creation of a graphical representation of the process flows as they currently exist – called a current state map.  To create this map, the design team visited another client facility to observe the client’s processes in their current state.

The visit and the resulting current state map uncovered significant opportunities for improvements.  As is common in the industry, the processing equipment was concentrated in one area, and functioned like an island within the factory.  All finished product was transported from this processing area to a silo farm, and the packaging lines would draw from these bins on an as-needed basis.

The problem with this approach is that there is no link between customer demand and the amount of product that is processed, a recipe for accumulation of inventory.  In food processing, this is not only costly, but impacts on the freshness of the final product.  The current state map graphically clearly illustrated the wastefulness of this approach.

The next step was to create a future state map, which outlined how the existing operation could work using lean processes.  A key feature was the elimination the high levels of inventory that were making the existing process less efficient.  The map identified the key priorities for the design of the new facility, which were submitted as part of the project bid.  In effect, the bid not only explained how they would build a lean facility – it illustrated how a new facility could support a more efficient process than what the customer had in their existing facilities.

This bold approach turned out to be a winner – the contractor was told they were awarded the project because they were the only bidder that understood the lean requirement, and how it could be applied in their business.

A Leaner Way Forward

It’s been three years now, and the facility is going strong.  Because the plant responds rapidly to demand, there’s no need for the storage silos in the previous facility.  The facility is organized in production lines, which operate on a pull system, where product is processed based on demand.  Instead of going into storage, the finished product goes directly to a staging area where it is loaded onto trucks and shipped. This means less wasted floor space for storage, a product that gets to the market faster, and most importantly, fresher product for the customer.

“In the new facility they wanted to design the waste out,” says Coté. “The building now supports processing in a much more efficient, effective, and lean way. They’re able to produce a lot more product at less cost now with this building while improving quality and flexibility to meet changing demand.”

With the help of lean, Lean Advisor’s helped a design-build firm literally design the waste out of a new facility.  Because they got it right, they have achieved the ultimate goal – making their customer more successful.

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