The human factor: getting the most out of lean manufacturing

When managers want to make their businesses more efficient, one of the first things they should look into is their operational processes.

This interview is based on research by Cristina Giménez, Cristina Sancha & Susanna Salvador

For more than three decades now, lean manufacturing has been the preferred choice for optimising business operations, mainly because this approach minimises waste without sacrificing productivity.

Born in the Japanese manufacturing industry, the lean management philosophy is based on specific principles that seek to improve overall customer value with tools and processes that eliminate waste.

But like everything in life, lean manufacturing also has room for improvement, as a case study by Esade researchers reveals. 

Lean manufacturing has been the preferred choice for optimising business operations

Cristina Giménez and Cristina Sancha, from the Department of Operations, Innovation and Data Sciences, and Susanna Salvador, from the Centre for Educational Innovation, worked with the automobile manufacturer SEAT on the case study SEAT: Achieving excellence in production and quality.

The case study, which won the EFMD Case Writing Competition, shows that the management of operational processes becomes more effective when you add the human factor.

Do Better: Why did you decide to write this case?

Cristina Giménez: Lean manufacturing has traditionally placed great importance on optimising tools and technical aspects to reduce waste. In most operations textbooks, experts tend to focus primarily on tools and processes, with only a small section devoted to working with shop-floor employees to effectively implement lean manufacturing tools. With this case study, we wanted to stress how the human dimension contributes to making operational processes more efficient.

How did you tackle this challenge?

We partnered with the automobile manufacturer SEAT, working with their vice-president of operations and his team to prepare the case. Students in the Double Degree in Business Administration and Law were confronted with the challenges SEAT faced a few years ago with the introduction of the Audi Q3.

We visited SEAT facilities and interviewed several employees at different levels of the organisation. After collecting research data, we designed a case study that showed how the human factor played a crucial role in the company's operations strategy.

How so?

During the financial crisis, SEAT managed to sustain very high quality and productivity levels thanks to their lean manufacturing processes. However, when SEAT's Martorell plant was assigned to produce the Audi Q3, it faced the challenge of raising these high levels of productivity and quality to even higher levels. At that time, several European automotive plants were being shut down due to lack of demand, but SEAT managed to perform and exceed expectations.

What did they do differently?

The company implemented a strategy called Productivity, Quality and Training (PQT), which revolved around the human factor. Instead of focusing only on technical aspects, SEAT used its lean manufacturing strategy to reinforce the training and human aspects of its employees and take advantage of this asset to enhance the company's tools and processes.

This employee-driven example prompted our students to reflect on the importance of the human factor in operations. They had the opportunity to implement these theoretical concepts in practice and present their proposals at SEAT's manufacturing facility.

The human factor played a key role in SEAT's operations success

Then what happened?

When we realised that the human factor had played a key role in SEAT's operations success, we looked into what research was already out there. We discovered that the SEAT example was pretty unique and that empirical evidence connecting leadership to lean manufacturing was scarce.

Our Esade PhD candidate Khaled Hassan is working on a research project about lean manufacturing and leadership. The uniqueness of his research lies in the fact that employees and their well-being are put at the centre of the study, thus connecting with the human dimension explored in the SEAT case.

We are now in the process of collecting data to determine whether operational results and leadership are interconnected. We have a strong hunch that they are connected and believe that individual performance may grow as employee well-being increases.

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