4 Most common questions about Lean Engineering answered


What is Lean engineering?

Well it is nothing to do with leaning towers. Most of us will have heard of lean in relation to manufacturing where it is defined as a ‘systematic method for the elimination of waste within a manufacturing system’. Now simply replace the word manufacturing in that definition with engineering or product development (or health care, public service, finance etc – it works for any operational system)

The word ‘Lean’ itself scares a lot of people off: ‘Don’t you need a certification to do that?’, ‘I can’t speak Japanese, I don’t understand all the terminology!’, ‘We don’t have the time to do all that stuff at the minute’.

Just keep it simple, the dictionary definition of ‘lean’ is ‘1. to incline or bend from a vertical position’ . . . ok, ignore that one, the next definition is ‘2. little or no fat’. Trim the fat, trim the waste from your processes, that’s all there is to it, no university degree or special costume required.

What is the waste in an engineering department?

Again as with the manufacturing department, there are a number of methods to identify this but if you are just starting out, keep it simple. Define the core value adding activities. Treat all other activities as wasteful and take steps to eliminate them altogether or at least aim to reduce the resources dedicated to them, resources which could include time, cost, people, tools, software or skills.

What is value adding in the engineering department?

It is the creation of the solutions that your customers want and need and are prepared to pay for – the stuff that is valuable to them. Consider the features and unique selling points (USP) that you would include in a sales brochure. Activities that are value adding, contribute directly to the creation of those features. For example a 3 year guarantee is a potentially valuable USP therefore design, verification and testing that lets you provide this guarantee is value adding. Reworking your design because of manufacturing issues is not value adding

Another way to consider this is to again reflect on the manufacturing department where value adding activities are the activities that change the state of the product i.e. removing material, joining parts etc. In the engineering department a similar definition works except you are processing information, not a physical product. That means value adding is changing the state of information from its starting point as an idea, concept or customer requirement through to a fully verified final design in a CAD model or drawing. An example of this is a brainstorming session that starts with a customer need and finishes with a product concept or the process of creating a CAD model from a collection of sketches and notes. Waiting on an email from a supplier is not value adding.

Can all waste be eliminated?

You most likely have more than one customer for the outputs of your product design process. Not just the end user but your production department, your marketing department, your finance department, even certification bodies, to name but a few. As we have discussed, the customer buying the product defines what is value adding. The work you do for your ‘internal’ customers is therefore not always value adding but it is often very necessary. This is where we use the term ‘necessary but not value adding’. The lean objective should be to reduce the resource dedicated to these activities.

As an example, a customer may happily pay extra for an automatic gearbox in a car. Your manufacturing department needs you to supply them with production data and drawings so they can make and fit this gearbox. The customer wants the automatic gearbox in their car but they have no sympathy if it takes you 2 weeks to create the necessary manufacturing drawings and data (especially if it could be done in 1 week!)

Lean in engineering asks us to identify all our customers, define them as internal or end user and evaluate all of our activities accordingly as:

  • Value adding activities that change the state of product information in the creation of features that our paying customers want to part with cash for. There may still be some waste in here but it is harder to find
  • Necessary but not value adding activities that provide outputs for our non-paying internal customers. These are wasteful activities but are necessary. We usually can’t eliminate them but we can try to reduce the amount of resource dedicated to them.
  • Non value adding activities – eliminate

Then trim the fat, get rid of or at least reduce the waste.

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