Here Darren Hook, Managing Director at English Heritage Buildings, offers an insight into the company’s recent efforts to operate a more efficient manufacturing process and explains how the rewards of the lean journey are already being reaped by customers.

In every business, it’s easy to keep things as they are when we feel everything is just ‘ticking along’. A question for business owners out there, how often do you stop to reflect on the finer details of your organisation, if at all? Or how about this: how often do you strive to make adjustments in departments or areas that aren’t directly linked to your finished product? For those that operate in the manufacturing sector, the inevitable success of your product, and ultimately bottom line, comes down to the intricate workings of your team and production line as we at English Heritage Buildings recently found out.

Learning curve

In an ever-increasing competitive market, we had for some time considered embarking on an efficiency strategy but it wasn’t until I was approached by an old industry associate who offered us the chance to attend a two-day workshop that we really got to fully understand how best to tackle the mammoth task. With experience working for the likes of Toyota, our mentor had an enviable reputation in ‘lean manufacturing’ – we were sure to gain a lot!

The concept of lean manufacturing is fairly self-explanatory – the process of continually removing waste from the manufacturing process. As it explains on our training provider’s website “waste is defined as any activity that doesn’t add value from the customer’s perspective”. Over the two days, not only did we have the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of how to strip back ‘waste’ from the manufacturing process but we also learnt how to identify where we could make subtle improvements to work flow and in other areas of the business. A concluding hands-on practical workshop then offered us the opportunity to demonstrate what we had learnt – some more successful than others.

Invaluable lessons

With all departments represented throughout the training, each manager was asked to return back to their fellow team members at the company’s HQ and identify where improvements could be made and where ‘waste’ could be removed.

With the support and guidance of our mentor, we identified several remedies to adopt a more lean manufacturing process. Armed with 2 state-of-the-art CNC machines, it became apparent that we weren’t making efficient use of either and over time had adopted an unnecessary complex process for machining components simply because we had the technology to do so. After extensively weighing up the minimum machine minutes needed against the maximum capacity that could be reached, we made the bold move to mothball our oldest machine and concentrate all activity – mentally and physically – on our newest, most reliable machine. Transferring to sole use of our K2i CNC, we were then able to achieve the same product using a simpler and speedier machining pattern.

After talking our mentor through the manufacturing process, it became clear that efficient work flow was a huge contributory factor of lean manufacturing. The senior management team in charge of production assessed the work flow and rearranged the layout of the yard so that it was more aligned with the flow of work in and out of the workshop. This, as a result, removed unnecessary movement in and around the yard.

In a bid to become leaner across the company as a whole, we were also taught to be ‘data-driven’ as opposed to ‘opinion-driven’. For instance, when a machine breaks down, a containment plan will help ascertain the problem, the cause, the process to resolve the issue and procedures to improve moving forwards. By reporting on the when’s, why’s and how’s, we are then able to adjust procedures accordingly, and learn from facts rather than make assumptions.

Elsewhere in the company, going ‘paperless’ was a clear cut route for the drawing team to a) cut down costs on ink and paper and b) save minutes printing and filing the paperwork in question.

Long-term benefits

So what has this meant for us as a business so far? By eliminating the ‘waste’ from our manufacturing process and other departments, we have been able to identify our full capacity, become faster and more efficient and, ultimately, we have been able to reduce the direct costs to our customers as a result of our reduced overheads and enhanced production.

Our journey is by no means over yet. We are still learning and we will continue to share news of our mission to become leaner as the story unfolds. We have never been a company to rest on our laurels, so if there’s room for improvement – be that our service or quality of product – then we will always strive to be the best.