Can Lean Principles Be Applied to the Process Industries?

Peter King just published a second edition of his groundbreaking book Lean for the Process Industries: Dealing with Complexity this past June -- just about 10 years after the first edition was released. Since the publication of the first edition, Peter has been busy consulting with food, beverage, gasoline additive, and nutraceutical companies -- these new experiences have broadened his perspectives on certain Lean processes and have given him a richer set of examples to discuss in this new edition. I spoke with him this month and asked him: “Why do Lean improvement efforts lag within the process industries?” Here is his complete answer:

That is a question that puzzled me for a long time.  During the last 18 years of my DuPont career, while we were having much success applying Lean concepts to process operations, I saw nothing in the literature and heard nothing at conferences about others in similar industries applying Lean.  So, I decided to do a little research.

What I learned is that there was some Lean activity in process operations, but it was not being talked about. Process companies can tend to be very “camera shy” – That is, secretive about their process details and methods.  Because the companies doing very effective Lean work were having success but being relatively quiet about it, it didn’t spread among other process companies due to lack of role models or documented success stories.

The  success stories that were documented were almost all in discrete parts manufacturing and assembly – automobiles, refrigerators, microwave ovens, computer keyboards, etc., which created the feeling among process companies that “I’m different – my processes just don’t look like that.”  Those differences are real, but it doesn’t mean that the Lean philosophies and concepts don’t apply; it just means that you have to think about them in a different context. 

The latter part of my DuPont career was spent doing just that: understanding Lean concepts and tools and then figuring out how to adapt them to improve chemical, food, fiber, and synthetic rubber processes.

A very pertinent example is cellular manufacturing. Many have concluded that this tool, very useful in parts assembly, has no place in process manufacturing because the equipment is generally too large to be relocated to move into a cellular configuration.  But we proved a long time ago that by thinking beyond physical arrangements to understand the real benefits of cells, cells could provide very significant value without any relocation.

After leaving my 42-year DuPont career, I decided to write Lean for the Process Industries to provide documented examples of Lean success in process operations, with guidance on how to adapt the concepts and tools and a clear roadmap on how to meet the challenges.

The positive reaction that book received has led me to believe I met that objective. 

About a year ago, based on the success of the first edition, I was offered the opportunity to write a second edition.  I enthusiastically seized that opportunity.  The first edition had been written largely based on my Lean experiences with various DuPont processes.  In the intervening 10 years, I have consulted with companies covering a much broader array of process operations: transmission and brake fluids, vitamin tablets, biological materials for human implant, salad dressings, puddings, potato chips and others, and have faced new challenges that have broadened my perspectives on how to apply the concepts, all of which are captured in the new edition.

Thus, I feel that the second edition meets the objectives I had for the first edition even more completely and thoroughly, and will reduce the gap referred to in the initial question.

What do you think of Peter King’s viewpoint? Have any readers who have been using the first edition of the book read this new edition? What are your thoughts?