Manufacturing in Wales: A digital transformation must start from a problem


Daryl Powell, Chief Scientist and award-winning Lean author, SINTEF Manufacturing and Norwegian University of Science & Technology

In 2005 I was a bright-eyed student at University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Swansea wanting to learn about this thing called Lean Manufacturing. I think we’ve come a long way since those days. It’s surprising how many of us think that digitalisation is a new silver bullet – this is one of the main challenges we have when we meet organisations. Digitalisation is a fantastically sexy concept, and a common perception is that we must do it because our competitors are.

Lean is about thinking, deeply

When we say Lean first, then digitalise, my main message is that Lean is about thinking deeply. It’s unfortunate that TPS stands for Toyota Production System because it should rather stand for Thinking People System. It is an education system for creating the conditions to engage everyone within an organisation in small or large learning challenges, every day. This is where we really need to start with digitalisation, by asking the question “what problems are we trying to solve?” Lean leads us to the Gemba. Lean first then digitalise. Leave your money in the bank – when I was Continuous Improvement Champion at INA Bearings in Llanelli, we always used to say use your loaf not your bread – it’s about using your head to think about it [the problem] before you use your money, and that’s important. To do this we need to get executives on the Gemba.

Last year we received the Shingo Publication Award for ‘The Lean Sensei’, and writing that book really opened my eyes to seeing Lean as a learning system rather than a production system. I’ve been studying and guiding Lean transformations for over 15 years now and I think the first 8 to 10 years of that was very much guided by an operations management, blinkered view of Lean – a cut and paste operational excellence programme for any organisation. Such programmes may be good for catching up with your competitors, but it’s how you use those tools to engage everybody in learning projects which is important. You might discover that using some digital tools will help to advance the state of the operation, but we shouldn’t do digitalisation for digitalisation’s sake. That just ends up with what we call digital waste.

Digital waste

Everybody is familiar with the traditional seven wastes from Lean, but by thinking in terms of digital waste, we can classify two types of waste. You can have active digital waste – which is death by digitalisation – where organisations just drive the digitalisation out and deal with the unforeseen consequences which are going to happen. Most of us have seen the results of a failed ERP implementation in the past. It can kill an organisation. The other type of digital waste is missed opportunities – so what opportunities do these digital technologies create for us so we can take the next step and become even more profitable and even more productive? To discover these opportunities, we must go to the Gemba and look for the signs and symptoms of the underlying syndromes – the misconceptions of management. What is the wrong thinking that is causing the wrong outputs in organisations?

A digital transformation must start from a problem

Lean is a misunderstood concept and for many years I was just implementing tools and programmes in organisations and only seeing some quality or lead time improvement. But the real growth

potential of Lean is realised only when we look at it through the learning lens. One company we worked with in Great Yarmouth achieved 400% productivity improvement over three years just by looking at Lean across the whole organisation – engaging the engineering, sales, accounting, and the general manager in the lean transformation.

We started using Microsoft Teams as a connected system for the whole organisation to share improvement ideas and solutions together. Connectivity and industry 4.0 are important enablers for being a leaner organisation, but there is so much we can start with before we look at technology.

What does winning look like for an organisation?

People must become curious. A basic understanding of engineering is critical. And the elephant in the room is that Lean is a worn-out buzz word! We are trying to say it is never too late. The promise of Lean thinking and practice is still very significant. For us, the core question is what does winning look like for an organisation? Reduce cost? Improve quality? Or do you want to grow the organisation. The solution for each of these visions is very different. What winning looks like is a very good place to start from for both SMEs and larger organisations.

Lean should sit everywhere. It is an organisation-wide thing. People should not just focus on the factory. It needs to sit at the top and the executives need to care about it and do it. Blindly adopting Toyota’s best practices is foolish but adopting some of the core practices as learning frames is not. Don’t blindly rush in with Lean or digitalisation. Don’t make a digital twin because everyone else is doing it.

To make good products, we must first make good people. You can design new product lines and use the same workforce by eliminating waste and working better together – it is all about the growth strategy. Can you solve more customer problems with the same or less resources?

This article is taken from a series of webinars in a three-day industry summit organised by MADE Cymru and University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) in June 2021. MADE Cymru is an EU funded (via Welsh Government) initiative that seeks to support and boost manufacturers in Wales via upskilling programmes and R&D. Find out more or email one of the team at [email protected]