The management philosophy "lean" is centered on making obvious what adds value by reducing everything else. This week we look at Kiwi companies' lean strategies and how it works for them.

Gerard Woods is managing director of Nelson-based LED lighting manufacturer Switch Lighting, which has 16 staff.

When did you first become familiar with the concept of lean?

My background is mechanical engineering where I've been exposed to the concept of lean for as long as I can remember. In the engineering field it's a terminology that's often mentioned but I'd never actually witnessed what I would call lean concepts. Then during the initial startup phase of Switch Lighting I started reading books on lean manufacturing and that led me to attend one of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise's Better by Lean seminars this year.

Why have you been interested in exploring it in your business in particular?

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What I'd like to achieve from implementing lean is an operation that embraces continuous improvement and adopts techniques that allow our operation to run smoothly with the least amount of waste.

What's next in terms of educating yourself and others in the business further on lean?

I'll be sending my newly appointed production manager, along with my business partner and research and development director on that same NZTE course. Once they've completed that I think we'll then be in a position to start implementing more lean procedures.

Since doing that course I've also read several books on the Toyota Production System, kaizen [continuous improvement], 5S and kanban [inventory control] systems.

Have you enlisted any external support to help implement your lean thinking in the business, such as consultants or other business owners who are further along on the lean journey?

We haven't enlisted any external support at this stage, but once we're clear on our strategy with lean we'll investigate using a consultant as part of the NZTE Better by Lean programme. And I have spoken to other Nelson businesses that have been through this process, visited their plant and learnt a lot about their processes of embracing lean.

So it's early days in your lean journey, but can you tell me about any of the practical measures you've instituted so far within the business based on lean?

I've implemented simple kanban and production parts labelling, based on some of the ideas I read about in those books. This has simply reduced wasted time and increased productivity by allowing my sales/stores person to replenish stock via a card system. The production team simply pull a card from the rack and produce those units. Product labelling flows from the inventory software to bulk store shelves and onto the production cells themselves. This eliminates wrong components being used, and makes finding components easier.

Learning about new concepts and ways of doing things I think can be challenging for business owners already hugely busy just with business as usual. What's been your experience of this?

I think this is most certainly one of the big issues. My business partner hasn't initially shared my vision for lean and when I first suggested attending the Better by Lean course his comment was 'I don't have the time'.

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Since I've been on the course and been able to report back on some of the information I learned he's now going to attend a course this year, as I mentioned, along with our production manager. I think it's really important to have all senior staff on board before attempting to make any major changes to the general operations.

Another challenge was when I first talked about lean with our staff, where immediately people's thoughts turned to things like reducing the cost of production, or making staff accountable for units produced per hour. But this is exactly what we don't want to happen, because it's a philosophy and way of life, not solely a means of cost-reduction.

I'll be calling our system the 'Switch production system', and want it to be a philosophy whereby we adopt continuous change and engage all staff across the business to make sure we're implementing procedures and processes that best improve the system.