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“Lean thinking” for sanitaryware

In what is Sacmi Whiteware’s thirtieth year, managing director of Lenovys and author of The Toyota Way, Luciano Attolico, presents his report “Increasing competitiveness through elimination of time wastage”: clear confirmation of the soundness of Sacmi’s adherence to lean thinking principles, applied since 2008. This interview is reproduced by kind permission of our media partner, Asian Ceramics (www.asianceramics.com)

"Any quality control done at the end of the process is useless and harmful"

The most precious resource is time. Its number one enemy is engrained habit. And the goal to strive for is perfection. These, then, are key factors of "lean innovation", as illustrated by Luciano Attolico - managing director of Lenovys and a leading international "lean thinking" expert - in his report "Increasing competitiveness through elimination of time wastage", presented at Sacmi Imola on the occasion of the tenth international convention on technological trends in the sanitaryware industry.

The underlying concept is an apparently simple one: "To create a regular workflow", explains Attolico, "by avoiding peaks and troughs. Excessive variability and overload are correlated factors that often lead to stressed personnel, lower productivity, poor quality and sub-standard service". However, interpreting the concept to the letter, warns the expert, "would mean the elimination of every variability, which is impossible. In truth we’re dealing with an ‘ideal’ to aim for rather than a method to be implemented slavishly".

Abstract concepts? Far from it: just walk into any company and analyse the process mapping (from incoming order to finished product) and you’ll soon see just how much time - and money - is wasted at every single stage: "In constructing the tasking time scale we lay out the tasks and milestones initially provided for in the official project documentation and then measure the effective time and duration of such tasks", writes Luciano Attolico in "Toyota way: 14 principles for the rebirth of the Italian industrial system", the latest edition of the international best seller "Toyota Way" written with American author Jeffrey Liker, now updated and packed with Italian case studies. "And its striking to see", continues the coach, "a team’s amazed - and enlightening - reaction when they're able to objectively ascertain the difference between what they thought the process or duration was and what it has actually been".

An entire chapter of Toyota Ways is dedicated to a case study of Sacmi, which launched its "Lean Innovation Ceramic" project in May 2008 with the ambitious aim of "developing an innovative product within a shorter time frame than usual", recalls Sacmi’s General Manager, Pietro Cassani, "thus reducing costs and, above all, improving existing methods and processes".

Let’s now go back to sanitaryware and the data - in some ways disarming - rattled off by Attolico in front of an audience of over 200 specialised operators from 30 countries representing the world’s leading sanitaryware players. "We need to bear in mind", began the managing director of Lenovy, "that, from the customer’s viewpoint, only 30-35% of company tasks add value. That’s why the opportunities for waste reduction and increased competitiveness are enormous". Then there is the second pillar of lean thinking: not just avoiding waste during the process (e.g. the delicate task of choosing suppliers, the purposeless diffusion of info and emails, unnecessary approvals, persons working without being in possession of all the required information or ‘hardware’ bottlenecks such as under or over-used machines or excessive product handling that results not only in wasted time but also risks that can, especially in the sanitaryware industry, compromise quality), but also avoiding the second great risk run by companies competing on mature markets: that of inventing needs and tasks (we might sum these up as "over-processing") that do not in any way add value for the customer.

Focusing on innovation

That’s why - as Sacmi Whiteware manager Daniele Coralli explained during the international convention - innovation that focuses on customer needs becomes the way (the only way) of strengthening and expanding one’s position on the world sanitaryware market. Some examples illustrated by Luciano Attolico in his presentation, while valid as a whole for all companies and industries, not just manufacturing) were of particular importance to sanitaryware production processes.

Over-production and overly-stocked warehouses can cause dual damages: firstly, exorbitant handling costs (given the need for a physical place where large amounts of unsold goods can be stocked, catalogued and moved) but, above all, damage in terms of the capacity to respond to the needs of the customer, who will inevitably request - joked Attolico - a product different from the one in stock, the outcome being that it will have to be redesigned, adapted to specific technological needs and so have a huge impact not just on costs but the entire corporate process.

The second obstacle on the path to heijunka - a Japanese term that, in lean thinking language, means "levelled" output, with zero wasted time - is getting product or semi-finished product handling (and, more generally, paperwork) down to an indispensable minimum. Some examples: a pressurised casting machine that operates too far away from the dryer, a raw material preparation department where the raw materials themselves are located "not close to the workstation", the continuous to and fro of semi-finished items and/or requests for information or clarification, the accessibility of machine parts requiring maintenance and operator interface ergonomics/user-friendliness (another pivotal point is ease of use and maintenance, now applied across all of Sacmi’s businesses).

The third enemy to be dealt with is "waiting", probably the most obvious form of wasted time that, in the sanitaryware industry, might typically take the form of a worker twiddling his thumbs while he waits for further instructions or a machine/component/spare part to become available. Then, there might be trucks sitting idly on the forecourt, awaiting their turn at the loading bay (a queue, explains Attolico, clearly shows that the management process has been found wanting), or workers might have to wait for a shared machine to become ‘free’ or wait for other workers in order to cope with more complex tasks.

Lastly, faults, errors and re-working can - in best-case scenarios -lead to process slowdowns, or, more often, customer complaints. More extremely, there could be over processing, which creates no added value for the customer as it simply generates a heightened potential for losing time, money and, ultimately, competitiveness. Again, over-processing may not necessarily involve just the product but also the information that accompanies it: ultra-detailed printed reports that no-one will read or which could easily be read on the monitor, purposeless e-mails and, more generally, work that, it might be said, "expands until it fills all the time needed to complete it".

Lean strategies

These lean strategyprinciples also embody a revolutionary way of looking at quality control: "Any quality control done at the end of the process is useless and harmful", boldly states Attolico, "while tasks aimed at preventing errors, making an accurate preliminary map of processes, assessing the value chain from the point of view of the customer and his needs is not just useful but strategic for moving closer to heijunka". Linking up the tasks and processes with the greatest added value and eliminating all the others, producing everything that is necessary (and only that which is necessary) is vital. One might continue at length on the opportunities and different practical aspects of lean strategy. However, in a country like Italy where labour costs in the sanitaryware industry are among the world’s highest, companies should be looking at lean strategy not just as an opportunity to be grasped but as an urgent necessity: failure to do so in a slump (i.e. shrinking internal demand and persistent volatility on international markets) could mean being swept out of the market. As the managing director of Lenovys explains, lean strategy can and must be seen as the way forwards.

The soundness of the method is deduced from a reading of the second large-scale project (after the ceramic presses) to be implemented by Sacmi according to lean innovation principles: this is described by Attolico in his recent work "Lean innovation, strategies for making the most of product and processes". Completed in 2011, this project regarded CCM plastic cap manufacturing presses. The outcome - again the result of painstaking process mapping, modified habits and zero waste - was an order response time of less than 30 days (a huge improvement on the previous 90 days or more); changes involved a variety of areas from order reception to component "pull" during production and a complete redefinition of warehousing. Thus Sacmi has succeeded in becoming the world’s leading player in terms of the number of machines installed and market share; indeed, in 2011 CCM compression technology achieved a greater share than the more traditional alternative technology of injection.

These, then, are the same goals being set by Sacmi Whiteware in what is now its thirtieth year of doing business, with major technological innovations - just think of the high pressure casting machines and automated solutions for handling and glazing - being implemented according to the principles of lean innovation: maximum attention to tasks that create value for the final customer, elimination of all those tasks that destroy value.

Finally, a last suggestion from the lean thinkers: this is not a strategy to be imposed via rigid top-down protocols but by putting teams in a position where they’re independently aware of process problems and can objectively assess the value (and non-value) of their own habits.