Canadian Plastics

Change is cultural as much as technological

Change is often the result not just of advancements in technology, but of changes that happen in corporate or business culture. Take, for example, the idea of lean manufacturing....

September 1, 2005   By Tom Venetis, editor



Change is often the result not just of advancements in technology, but of changes that happen in corporate or business culture. Take, for example, the idea of lean manufacturing.

The term itself, and the motivating idea behind it, has been around since 1990 when business researchers investigated how Japanese auto firms were changing the rules of automobile manufacturing. Derived from the Toyota Production System, lean manufacturing simply means eliminating waste and reducing incidental work to increase value. The goal is to decrease the time between when an order for a product is placed and when that final product reaches the customer’s doorstep, thereby improving profitability and increasing customer satisfaction.

But it is a mistake to think lean manufacturing is simply another term for technological innovation and investment. Certainly, technology plays an important role, as it did in automotive manufacturing with the introduction of computers and robotics into the assembly process. But lean manufacturing is also about culture, particularly when it comes to how businesses think about what they do, how they do it and who their customers are. Technology is only half of the equation in bringing value to a company — culture is very much the other half. Lean manufacturing can only work if all employees in a business, from the executive boardroom down to those on the shop floor, are behind the goals. If not, all the technology in the world can only go so far in producing better quality goods and improving the bottom line.

Usually, the resistance to change stems from traditionalism, an attitude of, “We’ve always done things this way and it’s worked, so why bother changing it.” But if Canadian plastics businesses want to flourish in a globally competitive market, with South East Asia and China looming large on the stage, then these businesses have to start thinking differently about their manufacturing and business processes, and how to best reach their customers. This may mean thinking outside Canada and the U.S., and cultivating new businesses in places like India and China, as well as leveraging the experiences of others who have ventured into those markets. Or, as Haremar Plastic Manufacturing discovered, capitalizing on the experience and expertise of suppliers and equipment manufacturers to find new ways to get the maximum out of operations.

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At the same time, lean manufacturing means being open to using new technologies to improve business processes and quality. When I covered the industrial woodworking market, there was a tendency amongst some industrial woodworking operations to say since woodworking was a traditional business there was no need to use computer technologies, communications and control systems, or have a presence on the Internet. But many more, right down to smaller shops with only a handful of people, were turning to new computer technologies, MRP/ERP software and communications and control systems, to make themselves more competitive and to reduce costs and production times. At one of the largest industrial woodworking trade shows in North America, I met a fellow who was one of the first to introduce computer controlled routing machines into industrial woodworking operations. He was told that he was wasting his time: new-fangled gadgets like computers were something better left to the eggheads at the university. Today, this fellow is widely respected as a pioneer, and his success resulted from simply understanding that new technologies were changing the industry he worked in and getting a head start was the best way to stay competitive. It took a fundamental change in his thinking, much in the same way lean manufacturing will to many. But the rewards for changing how one thinks and being open to new ideas and technologies can have long-term and lasting benefits.

e-mail: tvenetis@canplastics.com


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