What Differentiates a Lean Initiative in a High-Mix Environment?

Mike Elbert authored a great new book titled Lean Production for the Small Company, which explains how to adapt Lean initiatives for high-mix/low-volume environments. I recently spoke with Mike and asked him some questions, namely "What really differentiates a Lean initiative in a high-mix environment?" I'm including his complete response here:

Many people believe that Lean Production is only viable for large high volume producers -- those who produce few variations of their product. Lean concepts and methods, however, were actually developed by Toyota for their high-mix production environment. Companies such as machine shops, sheet metal shops, printing shops, and medium sized companies of all types with lots of different products or product variations with small production runs of each product are all good examples of a high-mix environment. What differentiates a high-mix environment from a low-mix environment is the number of product variations that must be produced all within a short period of time.

To implement lean into this type of environment takes some planning but can easily be done. Remember that flexibility on the production line is important and quick change over of machine tools, stamping dies, molding machines, printing machines, and assembly lines is essential. First, implement a program to reduce change over time of each machine or assembly line. Take a look at your current change over times and think carefully and brainstorm what you could do to reduce the time by 20%. Second, create a simple scheduling system for these machine and assembly areas. A scheduling system (as described in chapter 12 of Lean Production for the Small Company) using a simple visual display of removable production cards for each product will be very efficient, flexible and work very well.

Do any readers here work in high-mix, low-volume environments or job shops? What have been your experiences with Lean initiatives? What have been your main difficulties?