Lean Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement: What, Who and Why?

by Dianna Brodine, managing editor, PostPress
Ford’s early assembly line system of production was one of the examples of lean manufacturing.

Henry Ford may have been the first in US manufacturing to implement lean production when he simplified processes on the assembly line by creating an assembly line in 1913. Driven by a desire to make the automobile affordable for everyone, the workers laboring on the Ford Model T were divided by tasks into separate locations in an effort to reduce unnecessary movement. Rather than hauling parts and tools to an area where the vehicle would be built, Ford implemented a system of pulleys to move the car from one work station to another.

Ford realized stunning time savings with this production change. Cost savings followed as labor was utilized more efficiently, and Ford soon was selling more cars than ever before.

The principles of the assembly line – elimination of waste, specialization of tasks and increased production – evolved into the modern day “lean manufacturing.”


Ford’s production model worked well when the exact same product was produced each time, but when variety was needed the system fell into chaos. Lean manufacturing evolved from the assembly line to address product complexity. At its most simple level, lean is about finding waste in a production environment and removing it. The Japanese word “Kaizen” also is commonly heard in discussions about lean – meaning “change for better” or continuous improvement. Taken together, the lean manufacturing process encourages those in a production environment to find waste and work to improve or eliminate it.

Waste can take a variety of forms, including wasted steps in a production process, wasted labor hours or wasted movement of materials. Poor quality and excess inventory also are forms of waste. In view of managing that waste, the process has been distilled to five steps, namely the following:

  1. Specify the value. Find what creates value in the product/process from the customer’s viewpoint.
  2. Map the process. List each step in the process of creation.
  3. Flow the product. Simplify the steps so the product flows through production.
  4. Pull the product. Produce only what is required when the customer needs it, also known as just-in-time production.
  5. Work toward perfection. Continually evaluate the process to find other examples of waste that can be removed.


Toyota may be the most widely known implementer of lean manufacturing, having modified the reduction of waste mantra into the Toyota Production System (TPS) that has been adopted across the world. However, manufacturing facilities across a wide range of industries and serving a range of end markets have added lean manufacturing concepts.

From the big names – Caterpillar, John Deere and Nike – to the small, lean manufacturing can positively impact any company involved in a physical product creation process. Developing a culture of continuous improvement, however, involves more than a management-level understanding of lean principles.

Kelly Goodsel is the owner and CEO of Viking Plastics, a Corry, Pennsylvania injection molding company serving the automotive and HVAC industries. “As an automotive supplier, I’ve been involved in the Toyota Production System, which emphasizes lean production, for about 15 years,” said Goodsel. “However, I’ve realized the tools employed with the Toyota Production System are only part of the toolbox. Without also building a team that searches for continuous improvement opportunities, it’s like teaching somebody how to use a hammer or a saw without then teaching them how to build a house.”

Goodsel heard Paul Akers, a lean expert and author of 2-Second Lean, speak at a conference in 2012. Revolving around recognizing and eliminating eight forms of waste, 2-Second Lean gives employees the tools to recognize opportunities for improvement and implement solutions immediately. However, empowerment can’t occur without education, and Goodsel understood what was missing from his company.

He took the information shared by Akers to his team and started asking his employees to make improvements to the things in their areas that were causing daily frustrations. “We started with teaching the eight forms of waste to our employees, because knowing and seeing the forms of waste is the first of three pillars in our 2-Second Lean process,” he explained. “The second pillar asks employees to fix what bugs them, and the third asks them to share what they fixed.”

Viking began holding what it refers to as “daily drumbeat meetings” during each shift change. At each meeting, the oncoming shift meets with the outgoing shift to discuss how things are running and any troubles the previous shift might have come across. Additionally, data is reviewed on the prior day’s sales volume, on-time delivery statistics, customer complaints and safety points/regulations.

In keeping with its culture of continuous improvements, Viking employees seek to accomplish three things every day: identify waste, fix/improve the waste and share those improvements. Daily drumbeats offer the perfect opportunity for employees to explore and share ideas for improvement. “Just as machines require maintenance, setup, inspections and upgrades, so do people,” explained Goodsel. “Spending 20 minutes communicating between shifts provides employees with the information needed to better prepare them for the workday ahead.”

The results have been so stunning that Goodsel has become a bit of a spokesman for 2-Second Lean. In 2016, Goodsel and Engineering Manager Shawn Gross spoke at the Printing Industries of America (PIA) Continuous Improvement Conference to evangelize to a new group of converts.

“The level of interaction, employee engagement and relationships that are built in a 15- to 20-minute daily meeting is incredible,” noted Goodsel. “It breaks down barriers between employees and management, between departments, even between shifts – and that makes people more comfortable doing their job on a daily basis.”


In addition to the cultural changes resulting from implementing a continuous improvement mindset, removing waste from the manufacturing process saves time, money and resources. One of the key benefits is an improvement in quality. When processes are standardized and unnecessary steps eliminated from a production environment, the product created typically has fewer errors – reducing defects and rework. Improvements also can be found in employee satisfaction as those repetitive tasks that cause job frustration are eliminated.

Less space often is required as unnecessary steps – and sometimes equipment – are eliminated on the production floor and just-in-time production reduces the amount of excess inventory on-site. This can allow for expansion of services or future growth – or facility reduction, if that step makes more financial sense. Most importantly, the implementation of lean manufacturing and its related continuous improvement efforts often lead to increased profit levels and higher customer satisfaction, which can lead to additional business.

Adding lean manufacturing and continuous improvement concepts to any production environment isn’t an instant cure-all, and the process itself can be messy and frustrating. It requires a culture shift and a team effort that starts at the top, but the rewards can be great.

“Management needs to approach it from a position of respect for the individual, respect for the people. Part of the challenge occurs when people ask ‘why’ – and we don’t always have an easy answer,” Goodsel acknowledged. “It’s important to let people know that this is a journey. We don’t have an exact map, and we’re going to make some wrong turns. When we do make those wrong turns, everyone has to contribute to getting us all going in the right direction.”

Viking Plastics is on a steep upward trajectory marked by record profits, and culture has played an important role. “Clearly, the 2-Second Lean culture has led to significant change for our company,” said Goodsel, “and it’s driven improvements that have meant the world to our employees, our management team and our customers.”