What’s Next?

For years now, manufacturers have implemented lean strategies and techniques with profound results. Improvements occurred in almost all aspects of manufacturing and operations through lean. Its transformational power would be hard to overstate.

But what about the next decade? Will it be more of the same for continuous improvement through lean? Lean manufacturing certainly isn’t going away, but how can manufacturers build on lean? The concise answer for what’s next is technology and data.

The Progression of Lean

Lean methodically works its way through the enterprise, starting in core fabrication areas where physical flow, adjacencies and cell-based arrangements for the work are the usual starting point. As lean matures, the techniques head downstream to distribution and transportation, and upstream to inventory and suppliers.

Getting inbound logistics and the coordination of the supply base working in concert with manufacturing cycles, as well as distribution and transportation logistics, can result in the ultimate agility for a lean enterprise.


Comprehensive technology platforms already exist, offered by several different vendors that can do enterprise inventory optimization, as well as platforms for transportation optimization and route planning. These platforms essentially run on highly sophisticated analytics engines fed by data from the transactional systems in the business.

Platform-based approaches for technology have been available for a while and continue to mature. But newer technologies are emerging and hold a lot of promise for manufacturing.

A new generation of low-cost robotics bears strong consideration from manufacturers. This new approach to robotics is less about automating work and replacing human labor, and more about introducing the robot as a co-collaborator with humans. It may mean the opportunity to separate the work into the manufacturing equivalent of knowledge-work versus rote and repetitive tasks that are highly standardized.

RFID technology has also been around for a long time, but improvements in the technology have lowered tag costs and improved performance of the network capabilities needed to read them. RFID technology can now predictably and reliably work in the sometimes technology hostile environments of the plant floor. RFID can increase flow and efficiency as product and pieces move throughout the manufacturing lifecycle.


Manufacturers need to bring new competencies around advanced analytics and big data into their operations.  Understanding the performance of the supply chain depends on deep competencies in data and analytics. Technology and platform-based approaches may position manufacturers well, but interpretation of the data they can harvest will ultimately help optimize operations.

A logical starting point for data is the Sales & Operations Planning (S&OP) process and understanding incoming demand. The more the demand can be modeled with advanced techniques in analytics, the better positioned you can be for predictive tactics for demand sensing and shaping. The concept of “placing bets” based on predictive analytics can bring huge benefit in operating a smooth running supply chain.

Other ways advanced analytics can be used include:

  • Using event simulation software to anaylyze plant operations.
  • Simulation can be used to examine the effects of changes in product mix in schedules; theoretical limits can also be explored.
  • Simulated versions of proposed changes in the supply base, the transportation network and inventory levels can be similarly done.
  • Data mining approaches can be used to search for patterns in customers, lead-times, warranty activity and returns.
  • Data models can be built to create optimal approaches for cube utilizations in freight loading.
  • Route optimization and transportation methods can be modeled accordingly, also.
Bringing it Together

The journey with technology and data in operations and supply chain is really just beginning. The transformation that comes from the strategic use of technology and data could be just as profound as the transformation that came from lean itself.

The future workforce may need to be as literate in the language of computers, robots, analytics and data as it is in industrial engineering and supply chain science.

Bob Krestakos is chief information officer at Steelcase Inc., the global leader in the office furniture industry.