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RPA: How to Eliminate the 8 Wastes of Lean Manufacturing the Modern Way

Working on eliminating the 8 wastes of lean is an integral part of lean manufacturing management. To boost productivity and profitability, companies, especially manufacturers, need to eliminate wasteful activities (Muda or Lean Waste). These are activities that take up resources but don’t bring value to your end customers.

Time-motion studies, process mapping, retraining, deploying machineries, and process redesigns are some go-to methods to eliminate lean manufacturing wastes.

But with the advancement of today’s digital technologies, process automation should also be on your radar. Robotic Process Automation (RPA)—where software robots mimics the actions done by humans on the computer interface—can help eliminate several aspects of the 8 wastes of lean.

Today we will discuss how automating repetitive business processes using RPA is a modern and cost-effective way to tackle lean manufacturing wastes.

In this article, we will discuss:

What are the 8 forms of lean manufacturing wastes?

The 8 wastes of lean - waiting, defects, non-utilised talent, inventory, transportation, motion, extra processing, and overproduction
The 8 forms of lean manufacturing wastes

  1. Waiting - Wasted time waiting for the next step in a process

  2. Defects - Efforts (rework, scrap, etc.) caused by mistakes and incorrect information

  3. Non-utilised talent - Under-utilising people’s talents, knowledge, and expertise

  4. Inventory - Excess products and materials not being processed or used

  5. Transportation - Unnecessary movement of materials and products

  6. Motion - Unnecessary movement by people

  7. Extra Processing - More work or higher quality than is required by the customer

  8. Overproduction - Producing more goods than necessary or before it is needed

A common source of lean manufacturing wastes right under your nose

There are always some tasks at the workplace that human workers hate and are not good at, but they have to do anyway. These tasks are meaningless, mundane, and repetitive. Human workers find them boring, do it slowly, and yet make mistakes. Here are some examples:

  • Manually entering data from external documents, for example entering information such as date, amount, SKU, quantity from vendor invoices

  • Copying and pasting large volumes of information from one system to another, such as from your ERP to your WMS

  • Collating information from various sources to generate the same reports again and again, month after month

The common thread among these activities is the fact that your workers are doing the same actions repeatedly. Copy, toggle to another software, paste, toggle back, copy, toggle, paste—it goes on and on.

A woman frustrated and tired after working on the laptop
Repetitive work is exhausting for humans

If this sounds robotic, it’s because it is. And software robots are available and ready to take over these tasks. These robots can work 24/7 without taking any breaks or leave. They are also much faster than humans, and they can perform the same tasks repeatedly without making mistakes. All in all, you can easily 12x your productivity by using RPA.

On the flip side, by choosing to have human workers perform these tasks when a more efficient technological solution is available, you are generating lean waste or Muda.

RPA can help cut down many aspects of the 8 wastes in lean manufacturing. Read on to find out how.

How RPA helps cut down lean wastes in manufacturing (with examples)

RPA can reduce the 8 wastes of lean manufacturing
RPA can help reduce the 8 wastes of lean manufacturing

Lean Waste: Waiting

Time is wasted waiting for humans to do a task that can be done more quickly (or during non-working hours) by a software bot. Other colleagues or departments have to wait for the worker to be available to complete the task before proceeding.

For example, when a machine is down and needs a spare part for repair, technicians may find the part to be out of stock. They may have to wait for the inventory and/or procurement teams to be back at work the next working day before they can even proceed to order the part. Deploying RPA to automate at least part of the ordering process means that the process can be initiated without human involvement and the cycle time can be significantly reduced.

Lean Waste: Non-utilised talent

With human workers spending up to 3 hours of their working day on manual, repetitive computer tasks that aren't even part of their primary job, there is a serious underutilisation of your workers’ talent, knowledge, and expertise. This time can be spent on higher-value activities that generate more revenue and profits for the company.

For instance, instead of spending many unproductive hours preparing inspection reports, inspectors can enroll the help of RPA to prepare the reports instead. They’ll spend less time doing meaningless admin tasks, and spend more time using their expertise to inspect more equipment and to proactively identify maintenance issues before they pop up. This prevents breakdowns and increases machine up-time.

A man conducting an inspection of an equipment
With the help of RPA, professionals can spend more time contributing their expertise

Lean Waste: Defects

When it comes to routine tasks, humans make many more mistakes than bots (which can perform these without errors). Some common activities with error rate of 0.01—that is 1 error in every 100 opportunities—or higher are:

  • Reading information or graph wrongly (0.01)

  • Typing or punching a character wrongly (0.01)

  • Doing simple arithmetic wrongly (0.01)

  • Reading 5-letter-word with poor resolution wrongly (0.03)

  • Putting 10 digits into the calculator wrongly (0.05)

Mistakes like these, and more, result in defects that need to be fixed—additional time, effort, and money spent on rework.

A boy covering his face
Humans make mistakes, and they can be costly

An example in the manufacturing setting is preparing the Bill of Materials (BOM). It is a critical step in manufacturing that requires precise and detailed information gathering, and is hence time-consuming and error-prone. An error in the BOM can easily result in expensive rework, delay in shipment, and even serious losses to the company. However, when companies automate BOM generation with RPA, they can reduce errors and time taken, resulting in shorter time-to-market and less waste or rework.

Lean Waste: Inventory

Inventory is an inescapable part of manufacturing. To ensure that there is enough inventory to keep production running, companies need to maintain a safety stock level that is dependent, among other things, on the lead time.

Inventory in the warehouse
Excess inventory is a form of lean waste

The lead time is a sum of the supplier’s lead time and the internal lead time or reaction time.

While the supplier’s lead time is out of companies’ control, the internal reaction time is something companies can work on. Internal reaction time can add considerably to the lead time, and consequently inventory.

Workers have to determine when there’s a need to reorder, decide how much to order, raise and approve purchase requisitions, call for quotations if necessary, review quotes, raise purchase orders, etc. With human workers, you also need to account for weekends and holidays when calculating lead time.

By deploying RPA bots to monitor inventory levels and to automate the various steps involved in replenishing the inventory, these steps are performed much more quickly and with less reaction time. As a result, you can shorten the lead time, which in turn lowers the safety stock level and hence overall inventory level.

Lean Waste: Motion, Transportation, Extra Processing

When human workers are performing various administrative tasks, there are often many steps that they have to perform. Often, these additional steps—searching for information, transferring information, navigating across different user interfaces, clicking various buttons, and typing in duplicate information—don’t add value. These are wastes in lean manufacturing terms.

A woman doing work at a computer
Repetitive administrative tasks are a common source of lean waste

For example, an employee tasked with generating a report may have to copy and paste information from the ERP or WMS systems to Excel, Word, or PowerPoint. Companies with disparate IT systems also often have their employees checking one system repeatedly to transfer information to another system for analysis. Sometimes, employees also have to fill up the same forms again and again with information that is available elsewhere in the organisation.

Because of the nature of software robots, these kinds of processes are exactly what RPA is good for. While RPA does not entirely eliminate these wastes, it removes these mundane tasks from your employees’ plate. These processes become something that happens in the background, done much more quickly and with much higher accuracy.

Lean Waste: Overproduction

When reports are generated manually, management do not have access to the real-time information that is required in order to make informed decisions. In this increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, reports generated manually on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis are often outdated by the time it reaches decision makers. This can result in overproduction, or for that matter, underproduction as well.

For example, consumer demand may be falling, as seen from sales figures from various retail channels. However, because sales information is compiled and reviewed too slowly, the manufacturer may already have produced the higher volume based on outdated demand information. This overproduction of goods could have been prevented with speedier and more real-time relay of information.

Automated reports generation with the help of RPA gives management timely information to make swift decisions in light of market changes—falling or rising demand, supply chain disruptions, and more. RPA can help improve just-in-time (JIT) practices.

Crates and crates of beverages stacked together - overproduction?
RPA can help reduce overproduction by providing timely insights for decision-making

Reducing lean wastes with RPA—where to start and what to look out for?

The first step is to get some inspiration! Here are 6 real-world RPA success stories in Manufacturing.

Need even more ideas? Check out these 39 RPA Use Cases in Manufacturing we've put together.

While RPA is useful in reducing several aspects of the 8 wastes of lean manufacturing, you need to know where it will deliver the most value. Because you can’t implement RPA on all processes at the same time, you also need to prioritise.

Our free whitepaper on RPA process selection is a comprehensive resource to help you generate ideas of processes suitable for RPA in your organisation, then evaluate them critically and prioritise.

Selecting the right processes that are suitable for RPA is one of the most important decisions you can make. If you select the wrong process to automate—for example selecting processes with a lot of exceptions—you won’t be reducing lean waste. Ironically, you may end up generating more waste!


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