How to apply Lean methodology to IT

When Nigel Brabyn joined a 10-day business trip to Japan last May, it was to see how the famed Lean methodology can be applied to Nelson Forests -- but from an information systems perspective.

Brabyn is business performance analyst of the company, which manages 78,000 hectares of high quality radiata pine plantations in the Nelson and Marlborough regions, and owns and operates the Kaituna Sawmill near Blenheim.

He moved to this role -- the equivalent of a CIO -- over five years ago. Before this, he was information and technology manager for the same company.

Lean methodology espouses continuous improvement of all processes by eliminating waste in everything the company does.

Brabyn says the company's managing director, Lees Seymour, attended a conference last year, and met some people who were implementing the Lean Manufacturing System.

Brabyn says the company looked at it as a possible way of reducing costs and to implement continuous improvement.

Simply Lean, which had earlier run courses on the system at Nelson Forests, suggested the company executives join a 'Lean tour' organised by its partner in Japan, Shinka Management.

First stop for the group was a seminar on Japanese business etiquette, says Brabyn. "We visited two or three companies a day and attended sessions at the Toyota Training Centre."

A lot of the factories they visited were suppliers to Toyota, but none were in the primary industries or involved in forestry.

These included Ito En Factory, which produces green tea and coffee, Toyota Motomachi Assembly Factory and Toyota Kaikan Museum, Gifu Auto Body Sue Factory (Seat Track Manufacturing), Metal One Gifu Service Centre (Distribution Facility), Suzaki Factory (Pressed Components) and a food factory, Nissin, which produces instant noodles.

"There is no such thing called Lean in Japan," he says. The term was coined by the Western consultants' view of the Japanese management system.

If you talk to people in Japan, he says, Lean tackles the concepts of continuous improvement, and in particular in Toyota which started what is now known as the TPS or Toyota Production System.

One of the key principles of the Toyota Production System is "never make anything that you cannot sell," says Brabyn. "Don't do stuff that is not of value to the customer downstream."

"For forestry, it is a little bit abstract trying to take that Lean system which is very much a factory management system and convert it into our forestry business," he says.

"You really have to get at the essence of the system and look at what it is about. It is about eliminating waste.

Lean in practice

Brabyn says among the Lean techniques they use now is the daily stand-up meetings.

He attends two such meetings every morning, each lasting five minutes.

The first is with all of the department heads, then he moves to another meeting with the administration team.

"Our communication has improved a lot within the business," he says on the impact of these meetings.

"It has very much helped looking at problems that are there on a daily basis that have to be dealt with very quickly."

He says Nelson Forests is looking at moving the concept to their suppliers.

But before it can ask its suppliers to do this, he says, they should make sure the company is getting its systems structured around the Lean system.

Read more:The ethics of big data is an industry concern: Dr Barry Devlin

"In many ways, we can model ourselves on Toyota," he states.

"They are known to be a demanding customer of their suppliers, he states. But their suppliers know they will be paid well, and on time.

"Even if they have very high standards, everybody wants to work for them."

Related: Data science in the forestNigel Brabyn drills in on a key asset of Nelson Forests -- its data repository, which is set to grow exponentially as digital tools are used in logging production.


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