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Lean production practices in the specialty fabrics industry

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Lean production practices (often called simply “lean”) are gaining impetus in the specialty fabrics industry. The concept is more than a buzzword and has roots much deeper than recent economic pressures—but they do supply an impetus for more widespread adoption.

The principles of lean manufacturing can be traced back to Henry Ford and the “flow production” of his U.S. automobile assembly plants in the early 1900s. The concept was refined over time by others, notably Japanese executives Kiichiro Toyoda, Taiichi Ohno, and their colleagues at Toyota in the 1930s.

John Krafcik, a former employee of Toyota studying at MIT, reportedly coined the term in a paper published in 1988. James Womack and his academic peers further developed lean methodology in popular books like The Machine That Changed the World (1990) and Lean Thinking (1996), which is now available in a second edition.

In the simplest terms, lean requires businesses to define value based on the end-user’s perspective. It emphasizes the elimination of waste (in time, energy, materials) and the improvement of process “flow” from beginning to end. It demands change in workplace culture and buy-in from the workforce at all levels.

Womack went on to launch the successful Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) in 1997. LEI is part of the Lean Global Network, comprised of some 16 nonprofits worldwide. They assist all business sectors in adapting this efficiency framework to everything from accounting and finance to sales and marketing.

As one advocate notes, “Lean is not simply a toolbox, but a total perspective.” And today, lean is at work well beyond the manufacturing floor.

John Gehner is a freelance writer and editor based in Urbana, Ill.

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