Lessons on lean

25 July 2018

Simon Carr looks at what nuclear can learn from the automotive sector.

THE TERM LEAN MANAGEMENT, OR ‘lean’, denotes a set of principles designed to eliminate all kinds of waste from production processes, focusing on delivering exactly what customers want, on time and in full. Developed more than 70 years ago as the Toyota Production System (TPS), lean is largely credited with turning the car company into a world leader. Lean has since been adopted across the automotive sector and many other manufacturing and service industries. It improves productivity and profitability by eliminating everything that does not add value to customers.

Ultimately, lean is all about engagement and collaboration. Central to it are investing in continuous professional and personal development of all employees, and enabling them to share in the organisation’s development and success. This builds trust and loyalty – skills that are invaluable in a market as competitive as the nuclear industry.

Can lean help nuclear? Organisations in the nuclear sector have begun experimenting with some of its aspects, in areas of the submarine programme and as part of the UK’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre’s (AMRC’s) Civil Nuclear Sharing Growth supply development programme, for example. But instead of a systematic adoption of the full approach we see a reluctance to embrace change. Innovation is seen to be too much of a risk. We would like to change this view.

Lean is a set of principles designed to engage people in an open-ended, transformative, organisation-wide process, giving clarity of direction and fostering collaboration around clear goals. As such, it is applicable to almost any kind of organisation. But it is a system, not a toolkit, and it takes time and persistence to make it work. Implementing it piecemeal can never have the impact experienced by Toyota and other organisations that have followed in its wake.

The nuclear sector should have a natural affinity with the lean philosophy because it is already highly disciplined and regulated. It makes decisions in a calm and considered way after examining all the data – indeed it has to continually justify its existence through the presentation of hard evidence. It already knows how to eliminate waste such as unnecessary time and tasks. So, it is well placed to absorb TPS disciplines such as continuous improvement, relentless reflection and long-term thinking.

That does not mean the lean approach is slow or undynamic; quite the opposite. Activities can happen in parallel, and it is all about removing impediments to efficient flow and ensuring every part of a production line or organisational process operates at optimum speed. By aligning everyone within an organisation around a shared and understood purpose, problems that arise when products and processes move from one stage to the next, or from one silo to the next, can be collectively eliminated.

Tackling nuclear industry issues through lean

Lean organisations are very attractive workplaces from the outside because they are that way on the inside. So lean could help recruit skilled engineers into the nuclear industry from other sectors and help retain them.

An obvious focus area is waste containers. They are expensive to produce; each costs tens of thousands of pounds. Over 100,000 are required in the next 100 years, costing around £4.5bn. This is the nuclear sector’s big opportunity to adopt a fully automated automotive-style production system.

Lean can help nuclear plants care for and maintain their assets and therefore reduce costs. Intelligence about the life span of components and structures is invaluable in optimising stock levels, supply chain management and plant operations.

By looking at supply from a pull rather than push perspective and continuously striving to achieve an uninterrupted flow of the right product, in the right quantity and condition, at the right place and time, you can make significant improvements to your bottom line and your offering to customers and stakeholders.

Finally, the determined focus on innovation, efficiency and delivering what customers want can help streamline and shorten long tendering processes. Reducing points of contact and simplifying contract and pricing structures can all help.

Where do you begin?

Bringing about a transformative change of philosophy across an organisation is daunting. Start with a pilot project – a product, service or process that is large enough to have measurable impact and engage enough people, but small enough to be achievable. It has to be something that is significant to your business and within your gift to change within a timeframe of around six months. Learn from the experience, gather feedback and then feed that into a cycle of continuous improvement.  

Author information: Simon Carr, Sector manager at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders Industry Forum 

The nuclear industry can learn from the automotive sector about ‘lean’

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