Know your lean from your agile

Lean and agile manufacturing are often considered to be interchangeable, due to several similarities between them. For example, both strategies are important for manufacturers that want to operate sustainable businesses that stand out from their competitors. Both rely on data analysis and modern technology and both require effective communication between different departments and operations. 

Despite these similarities, lean and agile manufacturing are two distinct concepts. To make sure they have a positive impact on their business, manufacturers should have a clear understanding of the aim of each and how to implement them. 

Lean manufacturing

The aim of lean manufacturing is to eliminate waste, which means all processes and components of processes that do not add value should be abolished. To achieve this, manufacturers should reduce production costs, reduce the amount of standing inventory and increase labour productivity. As a result, this will maximise profitability without increasing product cost. 

Changes made as part of a lean manufacturing strategy must not negatively impact product quality. The Chinese manufacturing industry exemplifies the importance of this. Traditionally, it was focussed on productivity and low costs, but this gained the industry a reputation for producing poor quality products. The Chinese Government introduced the Made in China 2025 initiative to resolve this and shift the industry to a more customer-centric focus. This is where agile manufacturing comes into play. 

Agile manufacturing

Customer-centric manufacturing requires businesses to monitor customer requirements and maintain the agility to be able to meet them. This means manufacturers must transition from the traditional, robotic and systematic business style to a more flexible approach.

Customers are increasingly requesting customisable products and, to meet this demand, manufacturers are investing in 3D printing, which allows each product to be produced according to the specific design requirements of the customer. Alternatively, manufacturers can implement a modular product design process, whereby products are made from a number of different pieces, allowing fast and easy variation. 

Customers also want rapid delivery and are willing to pay for it — Amazon Prime demonstrates this. To offer a fast delivery service, manufacturers must respond in real-time to fluctuating levels of demand. 

To find out what their customers want, suppliers must engage closely with them. Social media provides a free, effective way to achieve this. It can also be helpful to attend trade shows and networking events to talk to customers face to face and develop a greater understanding of their needs. 

Both lean and agile manufacturing are important for making sure your business runs sustainably. Although the two concepts require distinct steps towards different objectives, you may find that as you start to implement one strategy, the other will start to come into play itself.