Leaning out of the Window

Lean manufacturing concepts and systems have been around for many years in the manufacturing and assembly industries, yet the windows and doors sector tends to lag behind in the application of these tools. In this article, we’re going to explore how Australian windows and doors manufacturers can improve their productivity and profitability using lean thinking.


Imagine that a snail entered your factory at the same time as a sheet of glass or length of aluminium profile. Which one would leave the factory first if they both followed your normal product flow? Think about the process of storage, cutting, punch, fabricate, glaze and final assembly, storage and dispatch for any window or door, or even a single sheet of glass. The snail is always faster than the product flow!


Now consider the same snail racing your paperwork from the time you receive an enquiry to the time you close the sale and issue the production information – the snail still wins!


Why is this you ask? It’s simple – the product or information follows a stop-start process whereas the snail simply keeps following the same path but does not need to stop.


When was the last time you challenged the processes in your factory, we’re not talking about the value adding tasks here? Most companies look to speed up the task, but few challenge the time between the tasks, which is where the real opportunities are.


Lean manufacturing is a combination of tools and techniques that were developed during the Second World War, and were made famous by the Japanese automotive sector and have subsequently been refined over the years to become a powerful tool for productivity improvement and innovation in the workplace. Applied properly lean tools and techniques can make a significant difference in the performance of your factory simply by focusing on optimising the flow of material and information in the workplace.


Many companies start with a process known as “5S” – five steps to improve a work area (don’t forget the office – sometimes there are more gains in an office process than in the factory). The first step is to remove any unnecessary items in the workplace (this is known as “Sort” – the first “S”), once you have removed the clutter you can start to find a home for what is left (this is known as “Set in Order” – the second “S”). This improves efficiency if you implement a “Point of Use Storage” system as you reduce the need to move your feet to find things.


Here’s where this makes a difference – I was recently in a windows factory in Melbourne and asked an operator to show me what he had to do to place a sash and fittings into a window frame. We timed the process and counted the steps the operator took to complete the task – 80 steps in all. 80 steps are approximately equal to 80 seconds and he did this task at least 100 times a day. Now the maths kick in – this is equal to 800 seconds per day which doesn’t sound like much but let’s see how much time he spends a year doing these non-value adding activities. If the worker does this for 220 working days per year, he spends 64 of these days’ simply retrieving and storing tools and consumable products – 25% of his working days are non-value adding!


By implementing “Point of Use Storage” we reduced his travel time by nearly 85% and freed up an extra 50 days of production at just one work station, imagine if we could do this at every work station? We automatically have a 32% gain in available processing or manufacturing capacity, with no capital expenditure. Alternatively, this could reduce the need for overtime hours.


The next step is to “Shine” the workplace (The third “S”) – In Australia this has become synonymous with housekeeping, but it is far more than this. Personally, I prefer the American version “Sweep” where the manager and staff visually sweep the work area to identify any defects or items out of place, and immediately address these issues.
The fourth “S” is “Standardise” – we need to set standards for housekeeping, equipment maintenance, material stock levels, teamwork, continuous improvement and the accountability of operators, team leaders and managers in the workplace – this is often where companies fail to lock in the gains as this can be time intensive and requires culture change. Many managers and business owners do not have the skills, patience or knowledge to do this well.


The last “s” is “Sustain” – If you do not develop a system and support structure to support your “Lean Manufacturing” program it will quickly lose momentum.


5S is only one of many tools that are used in the lean journey, personally I prefer to review the flow of materials and information in the workplace and get some quick wins using “Flow Kaizen” Rapid Improvement Events then can lock in the gains with good 5S and “Visual Workplace” practices.


As each company, we work with in the windows and doors sector has a difference process and product profile no one standard approach can be taken. We would recommend a two-day review process which includes the development of an action plan, followed by activity based training and Rapid Improvement Events to make a difference to your operations.


Improve Group RTO#31506 delivers lean training and consulting services.  For more information on applying lean manufacturing or government subsidised training in your workplace contact Improve Group ph. 1800 886 269 or info@improvegroup.com.au


Please note that since this article was written, the author has been appointed Director – Continuous Improvement with JELD-WEN Australia.