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Process Flexibility From Lean

Process flexibility applies both to the ability to rapidly change model mix as well as to change layouts of your facility. As continuous improvement speeds up its pace, you will find that your production areas enter a state of constant flux.

Build process flexibility into your workstations. Suspend power and air lines from the ceiling, and attach them to the top of your workstations with quick disconnects. Put your stations on wheels. Make them small enough to get through door openings, or make your doors wider. Break big workbenches into multiple small ones to add more flexibility to process improvement.

Process flexibility gives you greater options. You can choose from more options without worrying what it would cost you. If you want to try a new layout, and the cost would be 10 hours and $5,000, you might hesitate. If it will take you 30 minutes and $6.97, you will likely give it a go. Some moves really do cost that little, once you discover the wheel!

Flexible stations are exceptionally suited for use as feeder stations. When a line is re-balanced, the feeder can move easily up and down the line to wherever it is needed.

Of course, flexibility isn’t really free. There is an up-front cost to it. Having a station that you can move easily takes a little longer to build, and costs a little more than a static station. It pays off in the long run, though, when you make a change that you probably would not have been able to do otherwise.

That’s a big benefit for frontline employees. Most workers have many things they see in the course of the day that they’d like to tweak. Move two stations closer together. Swap the sequence of a pair of parts racks. Things like that-the daily improvement stuff that can’t easily happen without forethought.

Process flexibility also helps with managing the model mix. With more flexibility in your processes, you can adjust the product mix through level-loading (heijunka). That lets you match your capacity to customer demand.

The benefits of having stations that can handle multiple products are obvious. But like many hybrids, they end up doing two things a little less well than dedicated lines could.

Hybrid bikes are a good example. They can go on the road, but not as easily as a road bike. They can go on trails, but not as easily as a mountain bike. If you opt for hybrid stations, understand that you will likely trade some productivity for flexibility. Your job is to be creative to minimize that productivity loss.


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