Many people think that lean is only for high-volume manufacturers. However, the Toyota Production System was born out of low-volume requirements; that fact should put to rest this false assumption about lean. Lean is about finding ways to eliminate all forms of waste from an organization such that the customer is satisfied and profits and cash flow are increased. Lean can be applied to any organization: from high-volume manufacturers to hospitals to restaurants to insurance companies. This is because just about every organization has these basic requirements:

  • The need to make money
  • Processes
  • Products and/or services
  • Customers
  • Waste in their processes

It is the approach to lean that should differ from organization to organization. The principles of lean defined by Womack and Jones in their book “Lean Thinking” are general enough to be useful to any organization (Define value, Identify the value stream, Create flow, Let the customer pull, Seek perfection); however, it is the interpretation and improper application of these principles that has led to failure for many and a false assumption that lean will not work for them because “they are different”. When people claim that their company is different, they are partially correct. The implementation process differs from organization to organization for this reason; however, no company is so different that they don’t need to make money by eliminating waste from their processes.

Let’s consider a high-mix, low-volume manufacturer attempting to implement lean. Let’s suppose they make highly complex electro-mechanical assemblies with demand for about one unit every other day across all varieties. They might read some books on lean manufacturing and attempt to implement the tools and principles in their organization. They might try to create one-piece flow cells and falsely conclude that they work only for low-mix, high-volume situations. This is because they might have read that they need to calculate takt time, design the cell such that parts are delivered to the cell every 30 to 60 minutes, finished goods are removed from the cell every 30 to 60 minutes, etc. These “requirements” of lean are not really requirements, but are specific applications of the concept of “one-piece flow” for a high-volume producer. These “requirements” will not work for a low-volume producer as presented. For example, if they need to produce one finished unit per day, they won’t need to deliver parts to the cell every 30 to 60 minutes. In fact, they might consider kitting parts (or at least those parts that are not common to each product) and delivering those parts to the cell daily based on customer requirements. 

How might such a low-volume manufacturer implement one-piece flow? They might create a cell that produces a variety of products using one-piece flow by designing standardized work for each product variety. They will meet the requirement of having a management timeframe (pitch) using some form of visual control to show progress in the assembly process over time instead of moving finished goods from the cell every 30 to 60 minutes. These are just a few examples of how the tools need to be customized to meet an organization’s specific needs.

I encourage you to take the concepts that you read and learn about and think about how the concept might be modified for use on your company’s unique situation. This requires much more thought than reading a book and quickly dismissing the concepts just because your company is different; it requires thinking creatively. This is what makes lean implementation a challenge.

About the author:
Darren Dolcemascolo is an internationally recognized lecturer, author and consultant. As senior partner and co-founder of EMS Consulting Group, he specializes in productivity and quality improvement through lean manufacturing. Dolcemascolo has written the book Improving the Extended Value Stream: Lean for the Entire Supply Chain, published by Productivity Press in 2006. He has also been published in several manufacturing publications and has spoken at such venues as the Lean Management Solutions Conference, Outsourcing World Summit, Biophex, APICS and ASQ. He has a bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering from Columbia University and an MBA with graduate honors from San Diego State University. To learn more, visit or call 866-559-5598.