A term popularized in recent years has been "lean manufacturing." This descriptive term is indicative of an environment where waste has been trimmed. But, it also entails a focus on speed and quality. Another benchmark of lean manufacturing is the pursuit of standardization for as many processes as possible, without compromising responsiveness to customer demand.
The development of a lean manufacturing facility is not a quick fix like Kaizen. Accountants and others will conduct an extensive and in-depth study of each process with the goal of bringing efficiency to the business. Often, consultants and experts are engaged; these outsiders can bring a fresh perspective and valuable insight gained by their service to a variety of other businesses.
To illustrate, there was a time when automakers had many options for each car produced, and the customers spent considerable time deciding which options they preferred and could afford. This, in turn, complicated the manufacturer's production and inventory management. In time, they discovered that the manufacturing process, inventory management, and customer buying experience could be improved by bundling options into two or three packages. The "leaning" process resulted in a more standardized/streamlined production effort, and produced a better customer experience. The point is that making a lean manufacturing operation does not mean simply cutting, cutting, and cutting some more. It is the result of an intensive effort to streamline and standardize production, without disappointing the customer!
Just in Time Inventory
Inventory management often benefits from studies into the development of a lean manufacturing environment. Maintaining raw materials inventory entails not only a considerable upfront investment, but the potential for costly damage and obsolescence. Lean companies will attempt to minimize their raw materials inventory. One method is adopting "just in time" (JIT) inventory systems. In an ideal application, raw materials are received from suppliers just as they are needed in the production process. This approach requires a complete and reliable logistics system, as any disruption in the flow of materials can bring the whole production process to a devastating stop. Such systems are usually dependent upon a strong information system that often links the manufacturer directly to the supplier with automated procurement procedures. A Japanese term that is associated with JIT is "Kanban," which means some form of signal that a particular inventory is ready for replenishment.
A popular modification of the JIT system is for suppliers to "store" their inventory at the manufacturer's physical location. This enables the manufacturer to "buy" raw materials directly from the supplier's stock located within the same physical location. Finally, look carefully as you travel through industrial areas, and notice that "compatible" businesses are located in close proximity. For example, a beverage bottler's neighbor is apt to be an aluminum can manufacturer. All of these measures evolve from significant endeavors to develop lean manufacturing processes, and are usually based upon detailed job cost studies.
Total Quality Management
Total quality management (TQM) is a key driver of customer satisfaction and business success. Globalization increases the level of competition and drive toward higher product quality. This is often achieved by incorporating detailed standards into the management and productive processes. There is now a globally recognized organization, The International Organization for Standardization, that provides standards and guidelines relating to processes that drive the production of quality outputs. An "ISO 9000" certification suggests that a company, no matter where operating around the world, is able to demonstrate that it has successfully implemented quality management standards. This becomes increasingly important in selecting global trading partners.
An important part of TQM is to stress quality by comparing products and processes to other "world class" firms. This comparative process is commonly known as benchmarking. Motorola developed a quality-focused management approach that is responsible for billions of dollars in savings. So popular is the approach, that it has been trademarked by Motorola. The company now offers training into their quality management processes. Those processes are known as Six Sigma, and they are being deployed by many other companies. GE is a fan of the approach, and its website notes: "Six Sigma is a highly disciplined process that helps us focus on developing and delivering near-perfect products and services."
"Sigma" is a term learned in statistics. It is a measure of deviation from a norm. In the case of production management the "norm" is perfection. With Six Sigma, the organization tracks and monitors "defects" in a process. Then, methods are sought to systematically eliminate the opportunity for such defects. The goal is to achieve nearly "zero defects" - a defect rate that is at least six standard deviations from the norm (hence the name "six sigma"). Such a distribution would have only 3.4 defects per million observations. Importantly, the defects relate not only to final products, but to all business processes, whether they be in manufacturing, record keeping, or whatever!
Six Sigma revolves around the definition, measurement, and analysis of defects. The management accounting group will be heavily involved in this process. And, it is often the management accounting unit's responsibility to suggest improvements and provide controls necessary to drive an organization toward the near-zero defect goal. But, how does this result in cost savings? Companies have learned that quality defects are very costly. The costs come about directly in terms of the of corrective actions like warranty work, and indirectly through lost customer satisfaction that can adversely impact future sales. Significant savings are realized via the reduction in the cost of poor quality.
Reflection on Modern Cost Management
This chapter should serve to highlight an important message: The modern managerial accountant is increasingly deploying technology to deal with the mundane data capture, thereby freeing resources to study and analyze techniques needed to drive business success. While penny-pinching is an important part of building a financially successful business, it is also true that one can be penny-wise and pound foolish. Thus, the management accountant is not solely focused on cost cutting, but must also be mindful of measuring and instituting controls that drive an efficiently produced product of high quality.