About Lean and Quality 4.0 (but mostly about Lean)

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Quality’s future role in the era of the fourth industrial revolution is frequently thought to be narrower than today—as machines begin to make their own observations and take corrective actions for themselves—but the reality is far from that, at least for the moment. 

While companies are being lured into ever greater IT expenditure by 4.0 technologies like AI and IoT, quality people have a big opportunity not only to influence the agenda, but to ensure those investments have real impact on business performance—that’s what we care about after all.

The first way we can do that is by bringing some much needed perspective to decision-makers over the real potential for improvement that these technologies present, set against the cost of their adoption.

As an example of the need, a study earlier this year of European start-up companies claiming to be using AI revealed that as many as 40% were doing no such thing. That should serve as a warning to the wary that hype abounds in this arena, as does confusion over technology definitions and capabilities.

For companies wondering how, or more probably why they should invest, Lean has some answers. As a broad based ‘philosophy’ of business improvement, Lean is a reliable guide and sanity check. If this or that investment contributes to a Lean goal it could be justified, if not, well, that’s some very expensive engineering time you’ve saved.

It’s true that the technologies of Industry 4.0 are aimed at broadly similar goals to Lean: improving quality, reducing cost, increasing productivity and making firms more agile. But the approach to those challenges is different. Where Lean advocates incremental improvements and regular reappraisal, Industry 4.0 is revolutionary and wide reaching—a big change that might (or might not) have a big effect. To that extent it is often compared to ERP.

Companies are rightly interested in the possibilities because they do seem to hold much promise, but none today is a shrink-wrapped solution you can install on the production line or slot into a process while you sit back and reap the rewards.

Much of the potential of Industry 4.0 is rooted in the seamless integration of machines, in their autonomous operation and readiness to communicate. Yet none of those things is easy, or very likely to be widespread in the next five years.

Part of the problem is that the reliance on computer science and software to deliver improvements is expensive and the skills are in short supply. By contrast, achieving quantifiable business performance improvements by applying ‘conventional’ Lean Six Sigma methodologies is relatively cheap. It can be narrowly defined, the benefits are identifiable and measurable, and the skills if not at hand can be swiftly learned.

Yet, however strong the case for caution, Lean is not closed to Industry 4.0, on the contrary, it is open to whatever method fits best and is likely to produce the targeted improvement. There are just as likely to be opportunities for integrating elements of Industry 4.0 with Lean, depending on the specific case, as there are for introducing any other improvement methodology. Industry 4.0 looked at in that way remains the servant of Lean… at least until the autonomous machines make us servants of them all.

So what should we do?

Quality-focused businesses certainly need to be looking at ways in which Industry 4.0 ideas could contribute to their performance and how they might enhance existing improvement programs.

But understanding the possibilities and the suitability of available approaches seems to be key. And in that, quality people are likely to be best placed to advise.

Four things to consider before you get into 4.0

Start by being clear about what the technologies are and are not capable of doing. Not all that is billed as AI is so, and most of its intelligence is rather limited.

Be realistic about the degree of preparedness — have you got the right project or circumstances to introduce an Industry 4.0 approach, do you have the support, and the skills?

Take care to assess the long term costs and benefits of large scale change as compared to less disruptive incremental approaches

Evaluate programmes to ensure they are really delivering, and adjust them if not.

Talk to us about Lean, Industry 4.0 and emerging technologies for business improvement

Much like Lean, we are open to any and all methodologies that contribute to business performance improvement. 

Our Lean programs combine self-paced learning with live webinars and mentoring with highly skilled, certified Juran instructors.

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