Low Tech Lean

If MacGyver can do it, you can too!

Perhaps the reference to MacGyver, a television show popular in the 1980s, is a bit dated. But we admire MacGyver for his incredible ability to use the most mundane objects, such as a paper clip or a chocolate bar, to save the day (or the world, for that matter). Each week millions would tune in to watch MacGyver diffuse a bomb with a hairpin or plug a leak in a tank of acid with a wad of chewing gum—always in the nick of time, of course!

Today, we are on a mission to rid the world (or at least our plants) of waste and inefficiency. Though it’s great fun to have the latest “bells and whistles” it’s not very practical for many companies, especially when software, special racking, lifting devices, load-levelers and the like cost tens of thousands of dollars. So if becoming Lean on a budget is required, low tech MacGyver ingenuity becomes ever more important. In such situations, we commit to employing “creativity before capital” to becoming Lean.

After all, shouldn’t Lean itself be “lean”? Certainly it should! Before spending money on any Lean improvement device, the team should rule out the possibility of using something already owned by the company, fabricating the fixture or device in-house, or eliminating the need for the item altogether. We do this at home don’t we? Baby food jars separate bolts from nuts, empty whipped topping bowls make handy containers for just about anything. And who hasn’t used a little duct tape to temporarily solve a problem or two? Low tech Lean opportunities are everywhere you look.

Example 1: About two years ago, one corner of my son’s metal bed frame broke with a great thud. Without a welder, yet still in need of a functional bed, I placed a custom-fit oak log straight from our woodpile in just the right spot and he enjoyed a good night’s sleep. The log has been there ever since that night, and literally has had no negative impact on our lives. The bed works every bit as well as it did before, and we now have a spare piece of firewood handy in case of an emergency! So was this one of those infamous long-term “band-aid fixes” or was it a resourceful and creative approach to solving an immediate problem? To be honest, at this point we will likely never weld the bed as we can see no benefit in doing so. The low-tech solution works just fine and we’re happy with the result.

Example 2: While working with a manufacturing company, we discovered that a work piece must be held securely in a specific position in order to be assembled properly. Looking around the immediate area, we located a length of PVC pipe and a couple of quick clamps. We arranged and bolted them to the bench top. The new fixture worked magnificently! This low-tech solution greatly reduced the strain and repetitive motion risks for the women charged with attaching these large assemblies together dozens of times each day. It also resulted in more than double the throughput in that area. We could have used pneumatics, hydraulics or other more expensive and involved methods, but in the end our solution was at least as effective, simpler and cheaper to implement.

Example 3: At a pillow manufacturing company, our Kaizen Team shortened two large tables and cut holes in the center of each to facilitate the retrieval and disposal of fiber without bending or slowing the process. Initially it seemed a conveyor would be needed, but by emphasizing creativity before capital, we came up with a great low-tech method that worked even better than the high-tech alternative.

Coming up with Low-Tech Lean solutions is a bit like being a surgeon. It’s a well-known fact that a medical doctor takes an oath to “do no harm.” Perhaps a lesser known guiding principle is the practice of executing the “least invasive procedure.” In other words do as little as you can, but all that is needed, to fix the problem. This is a Lean approach. This includes not spending more than is needed, not building a solution that’s too large, and any other excess expenditure of time or effort.

Low-Tech Lean Solutions:

• Actually solve problems
• Can be implemented quickly and easily, usually with items already in-house
• Maximize R.O.I. both for time and money spent
• Are as good, nearly as good, or even better than hi-tech or expensive solutions

Sometimes a few pallets, a sheet of plywood, some cardboard, and a couple of 2 x 4’s are all you need to have a not-so-state-of-the-art, but functional, gravity-fed supply rack. Interestingly, pallets are a Lean building material of choice in many companies used for temporary work benches, boxing stands, staging areas, and so on. Once again, if you can’t spend too much money but need components for your Lean infrastructure this may be the budget conscious solution you were looking for.

Of course generally we prefer welded structures with durable castors for increased mobility and adjustable fixtures that allow for maximum flexibility. One school of thought is to employ Low-Tech Lean to cost justify further investment in solutions with increased functionality. In other words, you’ve already proven out your solution so additional benefits of higher-tech solutions are easy to demonstrate.

The first time I saw computer monitors hanging above every work station in a hi-tech factory, I was very impressed—until I saw them in action. What appeared to be a great approach to providing necessary info and schematics at the point of use really just turned out to be a very un-Lean practice that generated hours and hours of data search and retrieval time every day. Simple flipcharts, including photos and standardized work instructions soon replaced the hi-tech solution resulting in much less effort and a reduction in time wasted finding needed information. As a fan of computerized solutions, this was a bit disappointing. But when something simple works better than something complex, you have to go with it. It is the Lean way.

The floor, the walls, the shelves, and even the ceiling for that matter, can be painted or taped with colors that provide immediate information as to supply quantity on-hand, finished goods in-stock, etc. It seems the best Lean enhancements are usually obvious and intuitive and are generally very low-tech.

That said; you can also get creative and engage outside resources to handle complex issues like logistics services for shipping manufactured goods. LeSaint Logistics, is one of the leaders in third party logistics. It’s low-tech because you don’t have to develop the internal expertise… but high-tech because they are the pros who handle challenging logistical concerns for you. It can be a great win for companies struggling with the growing pains of a lean implementation.

Clearly there are times when low-tech solutions are not the best answer for your company’s challenges. We all know sometimes you need to spend some money on high-tech solutions to get the results you seek. The point of this article is to remind and encourage people effecting changes in the name of Lean, that throwing money and complexity at problems is not in itself Lean. Most Lean Practitioners come to appreciate that simpler, even Low-Tech Lean solutions are often, if not always, better.